Herself – London Film Festival

Written by Clare Dunne

Directed by Phillipa Lloyd

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the insipid musical diabetes which is Mamma Mia! To the politically ambiguous The Iron Lady, film and theatre director Phyllida Lloyd is nothing if not versatile. Seeking to avoid the large scale filmmaking ventures of the past, Lloyd’s release of Herself entrusts itself to the daily exhaustion women, and mothers face daily in their efforts to maintain dignity and independence.

Lloyd crafts precisely what her intentions were – continuing to tell authentic stories about, and starring women. Written and starring Clare Dunne, Herself centres on the struggles working-class single-mothers undertake to rebuild their lives, in this case following an abusive relationship. Sandra works every hour the lord gives her, and then some as she cares for her daughters. A chance encounter working for an old family friend leads to a series of events in which she can build a home, a safe home away from her ex Gary, but it has to be done quickly, silently and away from authoritative eyes.

Herself has something more profound in inspiration than a sure-fire ‘hit’ at the box-office. The integral reason for the success of the film is the stitching together of a psychological rebuilding – not of the physical home, but the metaphorical work Sandra puts into herself. Dunne’s script is authentic in the depiction of abuse as intense, but not oversaturated or obscene. Now, this isn’t to shy from the brutality of domestic violence, but rather to reaffirm that Sandra is not only her abusive relationship with Gary. That she is more than her suffering and the repetition of the singular event the audience sees is enough to reinforce the damage unfurling itself mentally, but the journey she goes on is the real focus.

Herein lies the facile issues of a tremendously well-performed film. The volatility and earthen nature of the script are dampened by less grounded side-roles and decisions. Not seeking doom and gloom, stories of those who have left abusive relationships needn’t centre themselves in misery, but Herself stumbles into a balancing issue as the supporting cast feel less stable, less investable. Pleasant and punchy Aido is indeed brought to life by Conleth Hill’s bouncy charm, but he and Harriet Walter’s Peggy just can’t find their place in the narrative outside of being providers.

Herself is at its most successful when developing the relationship Sandra has with her children, in no small part down to the fabulous performances from Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann who sell their adoration for their mother, and understanding of the events surrounding them with radiant authenticity. The relationships they build with Danne should play a larger part in the film, rather than equal footing to the branching plot threads. 

Character framing is usually Lloyd’s masterstroke with theatre, particularly capturing the precise moment of climax in an emotional transition. The understanding of openly demonstrating Sandra at her lowest, and eventual recovery, is something which Lloyd’s filmmaking should excel at doing, as Dunne is certainly bringing her all.

Aesthetically, however, Herself is messy. The opposing sides of light and darkness find no compromise as it lurches between aspirational and up-beat to a gritty, grounded film. The infusions of musical interludes demonstrate the imbalance best, where the epilogue captures the emotions Sandra feels without need for dialogue, using only lighting and song stand starkly to the cover of Titanium as the house develops makes for a soppy tv-advert, stripping the autonomy and dignity the film has been building.

Demonstrating the frustrations of a broken, but a desperate system, not of villains or uncouth social workers but people working to the bone with minimal resources and a lack of coherent or organised sympathy. Dunne’s script understands the system better than most in a frankly honest way, seeking not to point the finger at those other than the abuser.

So no, Herself isn’t necessarily revolutionising cinematic depictions but it is stirring the right emotions to flicker people into realising the vital nature of these narratives. It hinges on performances, rather than writing or direction, and on this, it can steadily rely on the brilliance of Dunne’s performance.

Herself has been released in select cinemas

Sea Fever – Review

Written & Directed by Neasa Hardiman

Ireland / 2020 / 89 mins

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The sub-genre of ecological horror usually finds itself graced by the ‘marvels’ of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening or Cody Duckworth’s Harbinger. These narratives regularly push the ethos of ‘mankind bad – nature good, with limited tact or subtlety, when, with reworkings and deft narratives, the films’ intentions have the potential to produce realist thrillers. Irish writer and director Neasa Hardiman strives to create nuance with her latest piece Sea Fever, an eco-thriller set aboard a fishing trawler, where scientist Siobhán finds herself stranded, at the mercy of the high seas and a perplexing creature beneath the hull.

Hardiman attempts to push romances and story exposition to exert an emotional connection with the audience, which fails for the most part. Hermione Corfield turns in a surprisingly steady performance as Siobhán, but is let down by Hardiman’s direction. There’s little to Siobhán outside of her academic prowess, which disconnects the audience; there’s not much motivation and we don’t feel a zest for why Siobhán is here outside of her employer’s orders to get ‘hands-on’ with research. Corfield tries to create the balanced character of an earnest scientist using her knowledge to survive, but there’s inadequate chemistry with the rest of the crew and as a result, the audience has scant reason to root for them over the ‘monster’, a bio-luminescent parasite.

The on-screen chemistry between Dougray ScottConnie Neilson and Corfield is the most seamless aspect of the characterisation, though it still remains limited. Meanwhile, Hardiman weaves in a theme of fact versus superstition, playing with concepts such as folk cures and myths of the parasite’s origins. It makes for an interesting concept, which, if explored further, would open greater possibilities for development or character contrast.

There are attempts to make Siobhán empathetic or caring for the environment, but these stumble. Chiefly, in demonstrating how a scientist is above murder, Siobhán comments on how she ‘researches’ and the crew ‘kills’ – but within seconds, she makes suggestions on how to eliminate the parasite. It’s small cracks like these in the writing which curb the usual tropes the genre forgives.

Further issues arise in the film’s pacing, which veers between glacial and rushed; after the parasite introduces itself early into the narrative, it becomes the focus. As such, only a superficial form of relationship building with the crew is achievable. While growing strains between the characters intensify further into the film, there isn’t much opportunity for a changing dynamic, as tension is only made tangible in extreme situations. The audience isn’t aware of individuals acting out of character due to the parasite, since there is little character to change.

The use of multiple climaxes and thematic callbacks demonstrate clever use of plot twisting and foreshadowing from Hardiman, though the film’s ending may leave audiences desiring more. Hardiman’s overarching idea is short of ingenious, taking the eco-thriller genre a touch more seriously than other filmmakers. The soundscape is minimal, capitalising on silence while leveraging the score to work with the moments of horror. Christoffer Franzén’s composition plays well into the lapping waves and the threatening dull thuds of the parasite on the ship’s hull; it’s a complimentary soundtrack which deserves notice.

Not entirely as fresh as imaginable, Sea Fever tries to elevate the eco-thriller, a genre which more often than not relegates itself to giant creatures, viral epidemics and over-the-top warnings of ecological destruction. Hardiman perhaps spreads her subtlety thinly, demonstrating a keen desire to highlight ocean pollution and over-fishing, but doesn’t tie it into the science as well as she could. With thinly-veiled allusions to science versus belief, Sea Fever sets out with promise but runs into choppy waters before leaving port.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/sea-fever/

Sea Fever will be available on Digital & DVD from April 27th 2020

Extra Ordinary – Netflix

Written & Directed by: Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman

If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, the last person you’d call is the driving instructor, right? Well, in quaint, middle-of-nowhere Ireland, this is precisely who to reach out to for all your ectoplasmic queries. Where other than rural Ireland could you stumble upon satanic rituals, pernickety ghouls, and humour in death? The perfect setting for Extra Ordinary, unassuming horror-comedy surrounding grief, regrets and farce.

Cult status, it’s a prize some deem worthy for a piece of cinema. One can’t shake the feeling, that this is what is instore for Extra Ordinary, at least in a minor sense. This unashamedly self-aware horror meets romantic-comedy knows precisely the story it wants to tell, and is only tumbling slightly in execution. Rose is a driving instructor in (very) rural Ireland, with one unique talent – Rose can communicate with the dead. A gift she shuns out of regret in having a part to play in her father’s death. That is, of course, until Martin Martin requests an exorcism.

There’s a surprising finesse in portraying banal – especially in a film which draws humour in the deceased. Martin Martin is now a widower with a teenage daughter to raise, his deceased wife Bonnie regularly haunting, possessing and generally being a pain in the arse, even in death. Barry Ward grounds the performance, which heightens the otherworldly aspects surrounding the character, but equally as capable in delivering hilarious physical comedy.

In the absolute reverse, Ahern and Loughman’s decision to cram a part of the narrative with, what they perceive, as twists and excess, costs the film an otherwise near-perfect package. At first, the doily coated Exorcist is a quaint, zany comedy, bolstering an oddly sweet gallery of characters, who plunge headfirst in foiling the antics of Will Forte as Satanist Christian Winter. Less a Faustian terror, more bumbling sitcom neighbour, the direction here fumbles as the comedy which put the fun in funeral, now seems intent on shoehorning tension, the over-the-top drama becoming more transparent than any supernatural creature.

Their saving grace, Maeve Higgins as Rose, carries such sincerity it’s easy to surrender to the lunacy of the script. The delivery plays into Extra Ordinary’s style, with its lashings of classic horror references, screwball moments and vintage VHS requiring a team able to ground the film, yet maintain momentum and world-building. No one excels at this better than Higgins, who captures an authentic sense of humour, concealing the loneliness she feels. This tenderness from Higgins demonstrates Ahern and Loughman’s written capability, marrying ludicrous comedy with fragility. Rose often identifies with the spectres she communicates with, unseen, unloved and alone, whilst Martin Martin’s throw-away line about “speaking with anyone, even a driving instructor, opens the doors to a frankness about death.

Visually, the set dressings and props reinforce an aesthetic, but cinematography limits itself to practicality. No reason to stretch for an art-house feel, there’s a distinct lack of manipulation or attempt at framing Extra Ordinary outside of medium or close-up shots. Instead, focus shifts to effects; notably the hazy, VHS 4:3 aspect segments which break-up the acts of the film, complete with title cards and choppy audio. They’re excellent visual gags, which hark back to those cassettes all shelves had, but with no origins materialising from nowhere.

Ahern and Loughman’s Extra Ordinary conjures those wicked nostalgia demons of the mid-eighties to the early nineties. There’s more than a fleeting similarity to the spirit of Edgar Wright or Stephen Volk, but Ahren and Loughman’s film is certainly of their conception, a determined pastiche with as much life as it has love for both horror and comedy. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/extra-ordinary/

Extra Ordinary is availale for streaming now on Netflix