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

The Breadwinner

Directed by Nora Twomey

Written by Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis

Gloriously direct, “The Breadwinner” (2017) turns the patriarchal trope of a sole provider into an unflinching tale of a young Afghan girl’s determination, fear and resilience under Taliban rule in 2001. Based on Deborah Ellis’ bestselling novel, who returns to write the screenplay, “The Breadwinner” is a gut-wrenching reminder of the violence that women experience under the shadow of modern histories vilest patriarchal systems.

As the boys play solider, it is women who endure, women who spend their days attempting to find semblance amidst the chaos. Both the original novel and the screenplay have been written by Deborah Ellis, with the screenplay in part co-written with Anita Doron. With such a wealth of female filmmakers behind the film’s production, it’s little wonder how “The Breadwinner” manages to encapsulate female oppression from the most tyrannical of archaic patriarchies for verdantly. More importantly, how it refuses to victimise these mothers and daughters, instead, matching the strength they display with the losses they suffer.

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Opening-up with concerns over modern-day political coups, Western interference in the East and the severe imposition of female ‘modesty’, Twomey rejects an outright statement on the religious practises of a culture with which she is not a member. It’s a respectful opener, rife with imagery which speaks more than the words do, like America and Britain’s recent history in the region does not need to be stated when the bombastic annihilations of colour illustrate the point enough.

Reversing the term ‘breadwinner’, in which our first thoughts are of a man, usually suited, for some reason in fifties stylings, as the primary caregiver for the family. In Kabul, a woman isn’t in this role, unless her husband, brother’s, cousins or any other man in the family have died, left or are in prison. After her father Nurullah is taken to prison for hiding books in the floorboards, teaching his daughters, Parvana finds herself the breadwinner for her sick mother, her older sister and baby brother. That is of course after she sheds her headscarf, her hair and disguises herself as a boy. With her newfound ‘freedom’, Parvana discovers that “when you’re a boy you can go anywhere you like”, as suddenly she can hold her head high, walk and purchase goods, all with less fear of scrutiny. Here, Saara Chaudry‘s voice acting moves from the sombre tones to a jovial child who is unearthing the brief joys in life, in an otherwise difficult lifestyle.

And this power of the written word, a resentment from educated women, has references which you can locate in Nora Twomey’s direction and animation. The tool which Parvana’s parents use to educate their daughters, much to the disarray of the Taliban, a storybook, a simple, harmless storybook which offers key weapons in the fight of oppression: imagination and freedom, which offer liberation. Mentioned as a writer, Laara Sadiq’s role as such an educated mother, Fattema is soft-spoken, which as the stakes grow higher, morphs into a matriarchal powerhouse of desperation – a woman for who no man will tie-down, even when threatened at knifepoint, beaten or any other atrocities she suffers in the film.

Liberating a profound level of freedom with the text, Executive producer Angelina Jolie works alongside Ellis and Twomey to reinforce the film’s stringency to the truth. The beating we see Fattema endure, the threats of ‘marriage at her age’, sexual violence, arranged marriages and abuse of both daughters, “The Breadwinner”, regardless of its comedic moments, playful characters or visuals does not shy from authenticity.

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So please take heed, especially from an advocate of children’s cinema, that “The Breadwinner” is not a children’s film. It’s the antithesis of animation’s place as a respectful genre in the cinematic field. Though, I would implore anyone, that if they sufficiently trust their children are mature enough to watch this film, please encourage them to do so. Stripping back the otherness of cinema, “The Breadwinner” places us into the eyes of children in a culture, in a world which we in Western society only ever see through media’s altered vision. Canadian activist Ellis crafts “The Breadwinner” as starkly human, but nevertheless, it is a warming film of family, it will connect with you regardless of nationality, or at the very least we would hope it does. At its most beautiful, this film is a masterpiece in animation which deserves praise for its manipulation of light, layers and dramatic-symbolic storytelling.

Any readers familiar with Twomey and Cartoon Saloon’s previous titles, “The Secret of the Kells” (2009) and “The Song of the Sea” (2014) will have expectations of ‘The Breadwinner’s’ animation style. A wholly unique form than what s presently on offer from the large studios, and even the independents. What Twomey’s style loses in-depth, remaining in the two-dimensional construct the likes Dreamworks and Disney have since abandoned, she makes up for with a palette of immense colour, transforming Kabut into a rich canvas. Injecting the culture with a zest we are unfamiliar with, the landscape a breath of colour propels it into significance, even the darker moments capture the futility of the task ahead for the family with their foreboding monochromatic shadows.

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Quite the opposite, where shadow is the plaything of reality, ‘The Breadwinner’ delves into the cultural stories of Kabul and the Middle East. Snippets of pure escapist storytelling, these blissfully animated segments are awe-inspiring, with a unique blending of multiple formats. They are animated, maintaining Twomay’s two-dimensional style, but they have layers. Almost puppet-like, certainly origami-inspired, as the symbolic jaguars and wolves descend against the young boy, a reminder of so many claimed by war. Ellis so heart-achingly illustrates the maternal vein of the narrative, that it is put upon young Parvana, her mother and sister to keep the family going, their personas reflecting the stories she tells her young brother.

Purposely ambiguous, the film’s ending is bitter-sweet, though refrains from outright misery. “The Breadwinner” earns a spot as a monumentally important piece within the last decade, not only for having a team primarily made up of women, but also for Twomey’s championing a genre which suffers from a hugely lacking diversity. As animation slowly gains a foothold with dramatic representation’s, Hollywood would do well to remember the roots of the genre with the ink-artists of Walt Disney, all women, whose storytelling capabilities continue to manifest limitless story-potentials in ways other film-forms cannot.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2019/11/19/itol-top-50-films-of-the-decade-entry-no-32-the-breadwinner/

9 to 5 – Edinburgh Playhouse

Music & Lyrics by Dolly Parton

Book by Patricia Resnick

Directed by Jeff Calhoun

Let’s just get something straight: too few of us actually enjoy our jobs. Certainly not those early mornings, hiding in the bathroom to play on our phones, avoiding awkward co-workers and superfluous bosses who seem to have obtained their status by what little they have hiding in their trousers. Well, we’ve had enough, you’ve had enough, and sensational matriarch of Country Dolly Parton, has had enough.

Adapted from the 1980 film of the same name, Patricia Resnick’s 9 to 5 sees a trio of women living out their careers under the thumb of a lazy, sexist CEO as they seem to be doing all of the real work. Divorced, widowed and misunderstood Judy, Violet and Doraleen become a force to reckon after ‘accidentally’ poisoning, hogtying and temporarily removing their boss from the picture. To the score and lyrics of Parton, this touring production seeks to revitalise all us weary workers with a dose of energy. 

A vastly capable deputy, with Louise Redknapp unwell, Laura Tyrer takes on the reigns for the confident, but vastly underappreciated Violet Newstead, who like one may suspect, is running the company in the absence of any real input from CEO and serial misogynist Franklin Hart Jnr, played by Sean Needham. Strong, but without resorting to the misconception of emotionless, Tyrer carries the role well, but it’s underwritten, with that her angle of fair pay, equal opportunities and positions for women is as relevant as it was in the eighties – a resounding cheer echoing as she has had enough.

From the Island to the big city, Amber Davies’ talent for musical theatre is put to use in her performances of Judy. Patience is a virtue, her solo number Get Out and Stay Out may not occur until the second act, but it cements Davies as a headliner with star-draw and silences any neigh sayers to the performer’s original television background. Arguably a simple role, Judy’s mousier attitude can be lost against Doralee’s personality or Violet’s strong presence, but Davies manages to hold her own with ease.

This brings us to our final leading lady, the ‘blonde bombshell’ of the trio, Doralee. An epitome of deceptive appearances, Georgina Castle’s not-so-subtle take on Parton’s cinematic counterpart is leaps above others on the stage. Her dedication to volatile comedy is inspiring, stripping off the shackles of a stereotypical character, driving a development which goes beyond what one would expect, but still stays in the realms of superfluous. Doralee’s interest lies not in her appearance, but in her sweet manner, country tones and physical comedy. Her control is without question, the most drawing on stage, indeed it’s rather criminal Castle fails to receive top billing despite being the most accomplished of the leads, and a fine tribute to Parton.

Parton’s music makes for the occasional stand-out number, striking a chord with the room, but on the whole many of the numbers feel repetitious, and dare we say, quite mundane. Vocally, there isn’t any particular issue, but the notion to tune out can strike, inducing some mindless, if cheerful, head bobs as you listen more to the composition than the lyrics.

Riding on a risqué note of hilarity of, Act two is a bitter-sweet turn. With notions of standout performances from the aforementioned Davies, it’s a star-vehicle of a second act, serving to heighten our performer’s roles, without emphasizing plot. Things are too tidy and packed a touch neatly, leading to less slapstick or oomph than the previous act.

Indeed, an admirable quality of 9to5 is the apparent lack of rigorous ageing, a film centring on sexism and female empowerment is still a relevant text, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s comedic nature has moved along with it. What stands above anything for this production is its humour, it’s quick-fire, intense assault of the funny bone – visual gags, obvious gags, satirical humour and lashing upon lashing of dumps upon Trump. It recognises that with a weaker storyline, it’s strength is reliant on cast and entertainment, and two performers extensively delivering the laughs are; Sean Needham and Lucinda Lawrence.

Needham is every sleazy man who said hello to you with his eyes, before his words. Yet, good lord is this an impressive performance in slapstick. He takes everything on the chin, or indeed, the balls. His timing, while stretching in song routines is no less precise in delivery, and while he may reject the advances of Roz, Lawrence’s performance of Heart to Heart deserves every putrid ounce of sultry praise. Carrying a number which could land flat on its face, Lawrence balances vocal range with physicality, and quick costume changes courtesy of Lisa Steven’s choreography.

Well good golly Miss Dolly, this is certainly a turn-up for the books. Perhaps the only time you will want to stay past your shift’s end, don’t bother clocking out – ignore the world out there, soak in the golden radiance of Tom Rogers design work, as 9 to 5 answers your prayers when work suddenly becomes rather nifty.

9 to 5 runs at The Edinburgh Playhouse until November 16th: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/9-to-5-the-musical/edinburgh-playhouse/

Photo credit – Craig Sugden