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Darkness mixed with hope, kindness

Clare Dunne in "Herself." [Photo Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video]

By Karen Butler

Writer and actress Clare Dunne says she wants her family drama, “Herself,” to help people see just how complicated domestic violence situations can be.

"There's a misunderstanding about that. It's always such a flippant question, like, 'Sure why didn't you leave him?'" Dunne told the Irish Echo in a recent Zoom interview.

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"Statistically, the moment between a person deciding to leave a partner and the moment they actually leave is the most dangerous period of time."

Featuring Harriet Walter, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara and Conleth Hill and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the critically acclaimed film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

“Herself” refers to Sandra, a hard-working house cleaner and mother of two young daughters who is struggling financially and emotionally after leaving her abusive husband.

With the help of her employer Peggy, kind-hearted contractor Aido and a ragtag group of amateur builders, Sandra constructs a home for her and her girls.

It is her love for her children that keeps Sandra going through her darkest hours.

"It’s what gets her out of bed in the morning. I don't know how long she would last if she was on her own," Dunne noted.

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There is great significance in watching a family shape a home from the ground up with their own hands.

"There are a lot of things about building a house that are satisfying,” Dunne said.

She took assembly classes in preparation for the movie and learned to appreciate the pleasures of stocking up on materials, working outside in the fresh air, measuring wood and using new tools.

"You have to be so in the moment all the time,” she related.

“You’re working up a great hunger and you’re talking to people about, ‘How do we do this?’ You’re problem-solving and you don’t realize that you are in total flow the whole time,” she went on.

“I found that really invigorating along the way for Sandra and her story and also [there’s] just the beauty of seeing something manifest over time.”

The film demonstrates how lucky Peggy and Sandra are to have one another, and suggests the characters are more alike than they know.

"As they begin to unpeel each other and crack each other, they realize they are almost a mirror image of one another,” Dunne explained.

“They are both mothers of two girls and they have suffered great losses in their lives and they are trying to look forward and make a better world for their own kids."

The fact Sandra inherited her housekeeping position from her recently deceased mum gives Peggy another reason for the women to bond.

"Cleaners, in general, have a special presence in people’s lives. If they are there for years at somebody's house, they sometimes become the friend of someone or the carer or the confidante. There is something magical about that," Dunne emphasized. "My own mother is a cleaner, so that's how I know. She's retired now."

Sandra and Peggy also need help at different points in the story, and are initially reluctant to ask for it or accept it when offered.

"I think we all feel a sense of shame in even needing help. We think that asking for help is like a failure or saying that 'I can't do it,'" Dunne said.

We shouldn't feel that way, though, since, more often than not, people are happy to lend a hand, the actress pointed out.

"On a simple level of the film, we say, 'When we help others, we help ourselves.' We feel good when we give money to charity. We feel good when we help somebody across the road," she said.

"We didn't make a Disney film. It's not all easy. There is a lot of darkness in there. But from my journey of researching and making it, and the people I met along the way, I witnessed instances of kindness -- live human action. I remember feeling a huge instinct to include this in the film….

"Even in the darkest courtroom or wait room or in a queue at a welfare office or out on the streets, I have seen great human kindness."

“Herself” was nominated for the Irish Film and Television Awards for Best Feature, Best Actress (Dunne,) Best Supporting Actor (Hill,) Best Supporting Actress (McCann) and Best Screenplay (Dunne and Malcolm Campbell.) Winners are to be announced on July 4.