A social-realist drama with fairy-tale elements, “Herself” (streaming Friday on Amazon Prime) centers on a working-class mother who leaves her abusive husband and literally builds a new home, with help from her friends. While there’s nothing notably original about this movie, its heroine is embraceable, its premise plays out agreeably and it has plenty to say about how the system treats women.
Directed by live-theater notable Phyllida Lloyd, whose film credits include “Mamma Mia!’ and “The Iron Lady,” the Ireland-set “Herself” combines a Ken Loach-like social drama with a “Full Monty”-like seriocomedy and a female self-discovery pleaser such as “Waitress.” It also showcases the talents of Clare Dunne, its cowriter and star.
Dunne plays Sandra, a Dublin mother who, in an opening passage, leaves her violent, controlling husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), taking her two young daughters (Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara) with her. Lacking financial and moral support, Sandra struggles to navigate an uncaring government bureaucracy.
She works two jobs, as a cleaner, and finds temporary housing in a hotel that requires her to enter through the back door so that its upscale guests won’t have to look at a social-services case.
When Sandra learns that a person can build a home for 35,000 euros, she rises to the challenge. She finds an architect, acquires a plot of land from her employer Peggy (Harriet Walter), and receives guidance from construction contractor Aido (Conleth Hill) — all for little or no charge.
Additionally, pals from the pub where Sandra cleans tables offer to volunteer their labor, as builders.
Soon the motley bunch are hammering nails and pouring concrete, their activity accompanied by indie-pop tunes.
An obstacle emerges in the form of, predictably, Gary, who shows up periodically in hopes of winning Sandra back. He’s as possessive as ever, and his behavior triggers developments that lead to a court case and a shocking act.
Some of these events defy credibility — an ongoing problem with Dunne and cowriter Malcolm Campbell’s uneven screenplay.
Lloyd’s directorial tone is on the bland side, meanwhile, and the characters and scenarios offer little in the way of surprise or distinctiveness.
Yet the let’s-build-a-house material, despite feeling like a corny montage, is enjoyable —even if Sandra’s ability to obtain land, labor and expertise for free makes one wonder if she’s stashed away a fairy godmother somewhere.
The movie’s social content, too, is noteworthy. It transcends Irish borders as it addresses the system’s failure to recognize the everyday realities and practical and emotional needs of low-income single mothers and women trapped in abusive relationships.
Bright as well as dark, the film also impresses as a celebration of friendship and as a reminder of the joy that can flow when people help each other.
As an actor, Dunne, a Lloyd collaborator in the theater world, isn’t a powerhouse, but she creates a quietly complex, captivatingly human heroine whose decent nature and fighting spirit make her likable and inspiring. Her courtroom monologue is a high point.
Starring: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Ian Lloyd Anderson
Written by: Clare Dunne, Malcolm Campbell
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
The documentary “The Dissident” (opening Friday on demand) examines the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist whose coverage and criticism of the repressive regime in his native Saudi Arabia made him a target of the Saudi ruling family’s crackdown on dissent. Director-cowriter Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”) presents the story like a political thriller, and while he sometimes goes overboard in achieving that, the film is gripping.
Combining talking-heads commentary and archival footage, Fogel investigates the widely reported Khashoggi assassination — which occurred in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul — and its connection to the Saudi royal family.
Fogel details Khashoggi’s transformation from royal-family insider to independent journalist and how Khashoggi, unable to ignore the human-rights violations that the regime and its leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were committing, relocated to the United States and began writing articles about the Saudis for the Washington Post.
The film also looks at the crown prince’s cyber-attacks, which involved propaganda campaigns and the hacking of private devices (including Jeff Bezos’ cellphone).
Interviewees include Omar Abdulaziz, the Montreal-based video blogger with whom Khashoggi, possibly dooming himself, began collaborating on a project designed to combat the regime’s propaganda.
We also meet Khashoggi‘s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside the consulate for Khashoggi, who never came out.
This isn’t the first documentary about Khashoggi’s killing. Showtime’s “Kingdom of Silence” covered similar terrain. Both feature, for example, excerpts from the transcript of the recording of the grisly killing.
But “The Dissident” contains its own worthy material, such as Abdulaziz’s observations on the methods of the crown prince and the regime.
It also addresses a range of significant issues, from Saudi wealth and global influence to the regime’s role in crushing the protests of the Arab Spring.
Starring: Jamal Khashoggi, Omar Abdulaziz, Hatice Cengiz, Agnes Callamard
Directed by: Bryan Fogel
Written by: Bryan Fogel, Mark Monroe
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes