There’s a moment in Clare Dunne’s debut film Herself that will leave you shaken and should go down in the canon. After escaping with her daughters from a violent, abusive husband and getting stuck in cramped temporary accommodation, Sandra (played by Dunne, who also co-wrote the film with Malcolm Campbell) decides to build her own house. The system has failed her, so she simply walks away and starts again – but she still finds herself in court, battling for custody of her children, asked why she didn’t leave sooner. “Ask better questions,” she demands, in an excoriating monologue that skewers something fundamental about the way we think about women’s safety.
“When you’re writing, you write with your head and your heart. That one was definitely more from my heart,” says Dunne, 33, speaking over Zoom from Dublin. Before writing the scene, she had been reading about a rape trial in Ireland, struggling to fathom why the woman was being asked questions that implied her own culpability. “It just made me realise… wow, it’s systemic. And it’s really insidious.”
That was amplified by the research she did with charity Women’s Aid, which she talks about with a passionate sense of injustice. “They said they always – every single time – ask them, ‘so why didn’t you leave him? Why didn’t you leave sooner?’ I’ll tell you why they don’t leave sooner: because they’ve been gaslit for three years, their brains aren’t even aware. They’re exhausted. They’ve been beaten down so much, they don’t think they’re worth it. And usually the thing that makes them go is realising that their own life is in danger, or that it might hurt the kids eventually.”
The first time we spoke, Herself was about to have its UK premiere at the London Film Festival before being released into cinemas in UK and Ireland in the autumn. The first thing did happen, to glowing reviews - but the latter, almost inevitably, was prevented by rising Covid cases. “I suppose at some point, you just have to accept that this is an unusual case on planet Earth - you can’t really get too bogged down in it,” she tells me later. In the intervening time, it won Best Script at the Irish Film and Television Awards, and this month, Herself finally hits big screens everywhere. It has only become more resonant.
“The film is so much about resilience and a woman who has survived enough already, but then chooses to create her own new world. With all of us trying to readjust to this new world, I just think there’s an element of transition in the story, from an old place to a new place that I think a lot of people will garner some satisfaction from,” she says.
Having watched the film at Sundance back at the start of 2020, Dunne felt strongly about making sure it was still released in cinemas. “Seeing it with an audience taught me something about the film itself, but also made me realise the power of storytelling to a massive group of people,” she says. “I’ve gone to the cinema and rolled around laughing, but also I remember seeing The Magdalene Sisters in Ireland, and how that was a huge thing for the consciousness of Ireland to move forward. Like, it was really big. And when we all watched it in the cinema, everybody was quiet after and filed out silently, in this kind of honourable dedication to the women that had suffered for so many years.” That experience, she says, felt “ceremonial…it helped hopefully heal scars, but also helped people be heard.”
Release date disarray aside, Dunne has had a busy year and a half. Last year she finished filming a role in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, and has just wrapped on a TV series in Ireland. She’s developing a TV pilot, writing and directing a short film, and “tinkering away on a few ideas that can’t be spoken about yet.” Phew. She and her boyfriend moved back to her native Dublin from London in the early days of the pandemic. “We went across Wales on his motorbike and sent his bags ahead. God, it was the coldest journey of my life, we were like Dumb and Dumber on the bike, frozen snouts.”
With Sharon Horgan on board as a producer, the film sees Dunne team up again with Phyllida Lloyd and Harriet Walter, who she previously worked with on the Donmar’s award-winning all-female Shakespeare trilogy. “Those years with Harriet and Phyllida were really formative for me – that’s probably where I realized wow, I really want to tell the stories of my generation, I want to talk about equality on a real level.”
Walter plays a doctor who employs Sandra as a cleaner (Dunne’s mum also worked as a cleaner, which helped inform the role) and offers her back garden as a plot for the house. “I wanted to show an older woman in Ireland that’s willing to let go of her land, she’s not emotionally attached to it or hanging on to it for financial reasons. And she’s saying, that patch of land could start somebody’s whole life off,” she says. “What if it’s about sharing it, because actually we all pass through this land, we use it and feed off it, it feeds off us, we tend to it and then we leave the planet. So realistically, do you really own it? I don’t know.”
Dunne has always written – “it was just a way of sorting out the world” – including two solo theatre pieces, but says the film was where she really found her writing muscle. The idea came to her when she was auditioning for acting work in New York and a friend of hers rang her. “She’s a single mammy with three kids, and she said, ‘I don’t believe this, I actually have to go down to the housing place in Dublin and declare myself homeless’,” she explains. At the end of August last year, official statistics recorded 856 families homeless in Dublin, with a total of 2,023 dependents. “So it was my passionate desire that I wished things could be better for her, that made me fantasise she could build a house with her own two hands.”
She googled the words ‘self build Ireland cheap’ and came across architect Dominic Stevens, who built his own house for 25,000 euros. In preparation for the film, she and Lloyd did a self-building course at the Centre of Alternative Technology in Wales, but it was in London that Dunne had some of her most hopeful research trips. She visited homes in Lewisham designed by Walter Segal, a pioneer of helping people build their own homes. “I was like: this actually happened at one point, where the council funded people learning how to self-build. I don’t know why it’s never spoken about. It should be a thing that’s reintroduced – because not only do people get a home for themselves, they get skills.”
The film means so much more after so much time spent largely confined to our homes, when having a safe roof over your head meant everything. For Dunne it’s been a reminder of how much we need community, and that some people “are basically on a warfront in their own home”. We liked to think of the post-Covid world like a blank canvas, asking ourselves how we could make it better. It makes me wonder – is a woman building her own house a radical solution to the housing crisis, or just a stark illustration of how she’s been failed? Perhaps it’s a way to stop putting all the power in the hands of politicians, Dunne thinks. “What if you just grabbed all your energy and went, I’m just going to go that way. I’m just gonna do it myself. Because I’m tired of waiting for you to do it for me. And I’m tired of the whole thing,” she says. “Maybe sometimes things have to break away in order to transform and become something else.”
Herself is released in cinemas on September 10