Phyllida Lloyd’s ‘Herself’ is a moving film about a woman who escapes her abusive husband and works hard to build a better, more secure future for her children and herself. The movie makes a powerful statement about rebuilding from the ashes of one’s burned down dreams. Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, and Conleth Hill star in this poignant film that tells the story of a woman’s resilience, her love for her children, and the coming together of a community that’s full of heart, kindness, and good cheer.
The drama film builds up like a slow-burning character study, and by the time it ends, it leaves its audience raw with unspoken emotion. If you’re looking to make more sense of the intensely earnest and cautiously hopeful ending of ‘Herself,’ we’ve provided a detailed explanation right after the plot synopsis. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Herself Plot Synopsis
Sandra, a mother of two little girls, is beaten up brutally by her abusive husband but manages to escape his clutches, taking her daughters with her. Public Housing Authority temporarily puts them up in a hotel, but they have to access their accommodation through the establishment’s back stairwell lest the hotel’s paid guests see them. Tired of the daily indignities and the small, cramped living space, Sandra looks into other housing options but finds nothing good in her limited budget.
She starts reading up on self-build homes like DIY tiny houses and begins to educate herself on this concept of pocket-friendly housing. Meanwhile, Gary, her ex-husband, tries to get them back together and keeps apologizing in a suspiciously casual manner, bringing up their time together every time Sandra goes to pick up or drop the kids for weekend visitation with him. And each time, Sandra can only remember the horrific and violent ordeal that she suffered at his hands.
When Peggy, an elderly doctor who lives alone and who Sandra helps out around the house, generously offers Sandra her own backyard as a plot to build her small home, Sandra starts to see real hope for herself and her family. She meets a kind contractor who reluctantly agrees to work on her site for free. They manage to gather enough volunteers to build Sandra a home by working weekends. But things turn bleak when Gary files a case against Sandra for breach of parental access, and the threat of losing her kids becomes very real for her. Just as her dream home takes shape, tragedy strikes.
Herself Ending: What Happens To Sandra’s Home?
The construction volunteers surprise Sandra with a finished kitchen, and Molly and Emma are excited to see their cute little home. As the house is finally complete, after weeks and weeks of hard labor, the group gathers at Peggy’s for a night of celebration. They sing, dance, and make merry until Molly runs up to Sandra and says the dreaded code word, “Black Widow.” Knowing that something has gone drastically wrong, Sandra and the volunteers all run out to the backyard and see the house enveloped in flames.
As they watch it burn, everyone is utterly devastated, but no one more than Sandra, whose dream of a secure, happy future turns to ash in front of her. Though it’s not stated explicitly right then, it is clear that burning Sandra’s house is Gary’s way of retaliating after losing his court case. In the days following the incident, Sandra’s spirit seems broken, and she’s too depressed to even get up from the bed. Days pass with her just lying on the bed and crying, as a different volunteer sits by her bedside every day in silent solidarity.
Finally, Gary’s mother comes to visit Sandra and tells her that Gary has been arrested for arson and is going to be locked up in prison for a long time. She reassures Sandra that she is safe from her son now. In a heartwrenching moment, Gary’s mother also confesses to Sandra that Gary learned about the domestic violence that could secretly happen behind closed doors as a kid, meaning that he used to witness his father beat up his mother (possibly for years) and then did the same to his wife.
Gary’s mom says that even though she cannot escape her husband, she’s glad Sandra escaped Gary. This scene is incredibly sad and quite revealing, providing an insight into the messed up life Gary had growing up and all that he might’ve seen as a kid. It doesn’t make us feel bad for him (not even a little), but it does help us understand why Gary is the way he is.
Will Sandra Be Able To Build Another Home?
Peggy’s backyard is still waiting for Sandra when she finally leaves her bed and goes out. She sees that her daughters, Emma and Molly, are out shoveling all the leftover muck onto a wagon, clearing the space for another house. Steeling herself in quiet determination, Sandra picks up a shovel too and starts scooping up the debris. The film ends on a bittersweet note, but there is a cautious hope that even though her dream home burned to the ground, Sandra is ready to rebuild from the ashes and power through to her vision of a better future for her and the girls.
The fact that Peggy and the group of volunteers are by Sandra’s bedside every day while she’s recuperating gives the audience hope that they are not giving up on her and will continue to donate their time, energy, and love to build another home for Sandra, Emma, and Molly. ‘Herself’ is a powerful yet subtle metaphor for shattered dreams and perseverance. If you are lucky enough to find the support of a warm, loving community, things will look up again, and you can rebuild what you’ve lost because hope lives on.
Read More: Is Herself a True Story?