Producers: Rory Gilmartin, Ed Guiney and Sharon Horgan   Director: Phyllida Lloyd   Screenplay: Clare Dunne and Malcolm Campbell   Cast: Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara,  Erika Roe, Cathy Belton, Rebecca O’Mara, Daniel Ryan, Anita Petry, Dimitry Vinkurov, Sean Duggan and Aaron Lockhart   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B

To anyone who’s ever watched a Lifetime Network movie, the basic plot of Phyllida Lloyd’s film will be all too familiar:  Sandra (Clare Dunne), an abused wife, leaves her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) with her two darling daughters, Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara), determined to make it on her own.  But it’s a difficult task, and her ex doesn’t make it any easier.

This is not an unfamiliar scenario, but in this case it’s rescued in some measure by some gritty, Ken Loach-like touches and effective performances.  

Sandra must deliver the children on weekends to visit Gary, now living with his parents—a passive mother and equally bullying father.  He proudly announces that he’s undergoing counseling and pleads for reconciliation, but always in menacing tones.  And she works long hours in demanding, dead-end jobs while she and her daughters live in a hotel as they wait futilely to be assigned a council house.

Sandra turns to the Internet, where she finds advice from a genial commentator about building a house oneself and decides to try.  She cobbles together plans after one of her clients, a retired doctor named Peggy (Harriet Walter) whom her late mother worked for, offers a plot in her backyard for the structure.  But Sandra finds it impossible to make much headway until she bumps into Aido (Conleth Hill), a semi-retired contractor, at a hardware store and persuades him to help—mostly by telling him that she was married to Gary, whom he knew on the job and dislikes.

Aido and his son Francis (Daniel Ryan) eventually become important members of Sandra’s house-building team, but there are others who pitch in as well—Rosa (Anita Perry), a single  mother whose children go to school with hers; a carpenter named Dariusz (Dimitry Vinokurov); a nice young couple from down the block; some friends whom they enlist—and the group comes together every weekend to prepare the concrete foundation, saw beams, nail them together, and share meals and laughs as the small structure goes up.  It’s the equivalent of the barn-raising sequences in so many movies, but here played out in contemporary Dublin.

There are, of course, roadblocks along the way.  Peggy’s daughter (Rebecca O’Mara) questions the wisdom of her mother’s gift.  Aido runs a tight ship, and sometimes has to rein in helpers who don’t take the job seriously enough.  Molly and Emma sometimes find it difficult to resist coming onto the building site, though they’re told not to.

Most importantly, Gary proves implacable.  He undertakes a court case to win custody of his daughters, accusing Sandra of being an unfit mother who has lied to take advantage of government programs.   The trial forces Sandra finally to stand up for herself publicly.  And even that doesn’t end her ex’s cruelty: he cannot stand the thought of her succeeding in building a home with no place for him in it.

There’s no doubt that “Herself,” written by Dunne and Malcolm Campbell, is manipulative; despite the emphasis of the title, the message is more of the “takes a village” variety, accentuated by editor Rebecca Lloyd’s upbeat montages of the group construction efforts.  And despite Dunne’s role in fashioning the script, Sandra is not a terribly nuanced character; she’s mostly tremulous, a suffering soul who finally grows a spine in defense of her children.  And a final scene in which she’s visited by Gary’s mother is rather pat.

Nevertheless the film escapes the mawkishness that could have hobbled it.  Part of that comes from the Irish backdrop, which gives it a mixture of grit and charm, with Tamara Conboy’s production design and Tom Cornerford’s cinematography important elements.  That gives a bit of reality in the proceedings, though, when compared to the films of Loach, without the same degree of political subtext.

And much derives from the performances Lloyd has drawn from her cast.  Sandra might not be the most nuanced character, but Dunne plays the notes she represents with genuine power.  Anderson is a formidable presence as Gary, and McCann and O’Hara are engaging children who can also handled the dramatic demands (O’Hara has some heavy lifting to do toward the close).  Hill is gruffly avuncular, and Walter is flintily likable.  The others are similarly well cast, and though the use of popular songs can at times be heavy-handed, overall Natalie Holt’s background score is unobtrusively supportive.

“Herself” is a combination of old-fashioned woman’s picture and modern feminist fable that, against all odds, works surprisingly well.