Knows precisely how it wants to convey the situation of every scene
I haven’t seen Mamma Mia, which is from the same director as this film, so I can’t make a clever “Here we go again” joke. Oh well, maybe I’ll just have to rewatch and rereview it to show my dedication to the art of comedy. Or, actually, maybe not considering this is a very serious drama.
Helmed by Phyllida Lloyd, the direction of Herself takes its subject matter seriously and knows precisely how it wants to convey the situation of every scene, even if the script doesn’t know what it’s trying to say. The use of foreground and background action and dramatic timing make every shot, every decision, as effective as possible given the material doesn’t offer much of a foundation. The strong visuals, well-directed performances, and motivated tone alone make this a satisfying watch.
This may be the film’s weakest aspect. Though its premise is interesting (a young mother escapes her abusive husband and must build a home for her and her daughters against a broken housing system) and does bring dramatic points at the right moments, the dramatic points themselves feel small since the protagonist doesn’t go through any significant change in the direction of rediscovering herself.
But this is also riding a fine line because why would we create a film about a victim of domestic abuse and give them a lesson they need to learn? Instead, the next solution is to give the protagonist a flat arc like in Paddington, which is sort of the case here, but the protagonist’s actions don’t inspire change in the people or world around her.
In the end, the plot is a shining puddle. Glimmering with beauty, but extremely shallow beneath the surface.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Clare Dunn plays the lead here and truly carries the film with her stunning and engaging performance. The whole cast is great with a surprising variety, including at least one non-neurotypical actor that doesn’t cater towards tokenizing. I do wish these actors were given a stronger script, but it was clear they all had a role to fill and filled it nicely.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
The cinematography and overall visual design is gorgeous, even down to the color-coordinated wardrobe. Everyone is distinct not only by physical attributes, but also by what they wear and how they wear make-up and stay consistent throughout. There is one moment towards the end that seems heavy on the visual effects, and it’s executed in a very engaging way and looks real.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score itself doesn’t leap out but does serve its purpose. The music selection here with Sia clashes with some of the casting choices on a level outside of the film itself, but don’t break immersion from the film any more than a regular needle-drop does in any given film. Do they help support the themes the film is trying to tackle? No, but it still fits in nicely with the style and overall tone.
The sound design itself is fairly exceptional with the use of sound effects and specifically targeting the left and right speakers instead of balancing on both, from my experience. Obviously this wouldn’t translate to listening via phone speakers, but watching with headphones or a stereo sound set-up is definitely worth it!
In the end, Herself wants to tackle some social issues but doesn’t entirely know what it wants to say or how to say it. It’s stunning visually and in no way a bad film, but you can feel how shallow it is when it thinks it's being deep and reflective. Not quite something to write-off, but definitely keep expectations in check.
Amazon Studios will release HERSELF in select theaters December 30th, 2020 and on Prime Video January 8th, 2021