Sandra has a small dark birthmark under her left eye, as does the actress, Clare Dunne, who plays her. The effect is that of a permanent shiner, a bruise that never goes away. It makes an eloquent metaphor for a woman struggling to recover from the trauma of domestic abuse.
“Herself,” a modest, empathetic Irish film playing at the Kendall Square this week and arriving on Amazon Jan. 8, follows Sandra’s slow but sturdy efforts to get back on her feet and make a life with her two young daughters after fleeing her husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson). In an opening scene that’s difficult to watch, we’ve seen the beatings she has taken one time too many, and the bulk of the film finds Sandra relocated by the state to a hotel room far from the girls’ school. Apartments in Dublin are impossible to come by. She looks at a passing homeless family with a feeling of creeping dread. And then a crazy idea strikes: Why not build her own house from scratch?
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!,” “The Iron Lady”), “Herself” is in part about the community that grows around its beleaguered heroine almost despite her efforts. Finding online instructions on small home construction is one thing, finding the land and buying supplies another. But the screenplay, written by Dunne and Malcolm Campbell, believes in ordinary angels: the prickly but supportive doctor (Harriet Walter) for whom Sandra cleans house and who has a back garden going to seed; Aido (Conleth Hill), a gruff builder reluctantly retired with a bad heart; a fellow waitress (Ericka Roe) at the bar where Sandra works and her friends from the squat. And so on and so forth: a moat of human connection that is as protective of the heroine as the walls they raise together.
The story is told in a low-key style, affable and tense by turns, and it doesn’t avoid visual clichés: the inspirational construction montages, the frightening flashbacks. “Herself” is more honest than most about the PTSD of partner abuse, and in Dunne’s nuanced and heartfelt performance we see the inner strength that keeps Sandra going at war with the terror that never goes away. The parts of the two daughters, tough-minded Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and younger, more sensitive Molly (Molly McCann), are written with care and complexity.
The film is especially clear-eyed about the ways the state bureaucracy designed to help women like Sandra can sometimes stymie their best efforts. That narrative strand reaches a climax in a family court scene that stands as the emotional peak toward which “Herself” has been ascending, after which there’s one more plot twist that feels less like divine intervention and more like a screenwriter’s. That still doesn’t spoil a delicate film in which every victory, no matter how small, is hard won and all the dearer for it.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne. Starring Dunn, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill. At Kendall Square and on Amazon Jan. 8. 97 minutes. R (language, some domestic violence)