Sometimes the universe aligns in such a way as to bring things into new focus. Case in point: Recently, I had the opportunity to watch two new films set in Ireland. One is a live-action drama that tackles domestic violence. The other is an animated fairy tale about magical wolf people. At first glance, they’re vastly different movies. But the more I thought about them separately and together, the more I realized that they have a great deal in common. They are also both beautiful and affecting films worthy of your time.
Let’s start with HERSELF, which is not like most of the films reviewed on the Skywalking Network. The movie centers on a single mother trying to build a new life for herself and her two young daughters after leaving her abusive husband. It’s set in the present, in Dublin, Ireland, in what seem like mostly affluent neighborhoods. At the beginning of the movie, we see how the mother, Sandra (played by Clare Dunne, who conceived the story and also co-wrote the screenplay with Malcolm Campbell), has made a plan to escape from her controlling, abusive husband and the father of her children, Gary.
During a harrowing attack at home, Sandra puts her escape plan into action and manages to get away. She and her daughters, Emma and Molly, are placed in temporary housing at an airport-adjacent hotel thanks to help from public housing assistance. Unfortunately, this location, while necessary to start their path to safety, is a very long drive to the girls’ school, which means very early wake-ups for everyone, rushed morning routines and causes Sandra to be late to her two part-time jobs. Not surprisingly, those two jobs don’t cover enough of their expenses, and there’s not much hope for permanent housing within the system. It’s clear she needs a different long-term plan.
Throughout the film, director Phyllida Lloyd (who directed both the stage and film versions of MAMMA MIA!”) takes care to show enough of Gary’s cruelty and violence for us to appreciate the reality of the situation. It is not presented as melodrama, all dramatic music and pitiful expressions suggesting violence. The abuse is not glamorized or sensationalistic. It is not easy to watch, but it is critical that we see through Sandra’s eyes.
But Lloyd also makes sure to show us the other side of the coin in the moments of tenderness between mother and children, the genuine fun they have together, and the Herculean parenting efforts that Sandra must perform to give her daughters what they need during this time of crisis living, from a nutritious but frugal supermarket meal prepared in a sparse hotel room, to emotional support while they process what they have been through, to the carefree play and sweetness of childhood.
One of those tender moments — eldest daughter Emma’s expressive retelling of an old Catholic legend — brings things into focus for Sandra and jumpstarts her ambitious plan to build a DIY house for her and her daughters. Throughout the rest of her journey (and the film), she attracts helpers from seemingly unlikely sources who are able to shift their focus to see Sandra’s reality anew, as well. Together, they slowly form a found family for Sandra and her girls, attempting to correct the situation.
HERSELF does not shy away from the realistic, heart-wrenching brutalities — in all their forms — that those leaving abusive relationships face before and after they leave the abuser. And it shows us the profound hope that is necessary to pull through in difficult times.
For the animated film from directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart (who previously gave us the excellent THE SECRET OF KELLS and SONG OF THE SEA), we travel 77 miles southwest of Dublin and nearly 400 years back in time to Kilkenny, Ireland in the year 1650. In WOLFWALKERS, an English girl named Robyn Goodfellowe and her wolf-hunting father have journeyed to Kilkenny to help the invading English military destroy the last of the wolves that live in Ireland’s forests. The invaders’ fear of the wolves is so great that they have erected a wall around the city to keep the colonists safe. News of wolf sightings in the forest trigger waves of hysteria among the townsfolk.
Robyn aspires to be a wolf hunter, too, and longs to spend more time with her widowed father, whose work often takes him away from home. Her father wants to protect her and keep the promise he made to her mother, and orders her to stay in the house no matter what. When he is called upon by the evil Lord Protector to hunt the wolves, Robyn manages to sneak past the guards protecting the gate to follow him and try her hand at wolf hunting in the forest.
Once in the forest, Robyn has a harrowing hunting experience gone awry, and encounters a girl named Mebh (the Old Irish version of “Maeve”) who, it turns out, is a Wolfwalker, a mysterious Irish shapeshifter with healing powers who lives among the wolves as a leader. By day, Wolfwalkers appear human but by night, they change into their wolf form and roam the woods. In contrast to Robyn’s slightly more disciplined demeanor, the free-spirited Mebh comes off as boastful, a bit wild while also trying to hide that she is in need of help. The meeting will change the lives of both girls forever.
WOLFWALKERS, in addition to being a wonderful, emotional — often sad — story, is visually stunning thanks to hand-drawn animation with a style that is reminiscent of the tapestries and woodblock prints in European art from centuries ago. The filmmakers made the unorthodox but effective choice to use two entirely different styles of drawing in the film (hard, angular lines for the city versus rounded and flowing curves for the forest) to delineate the stark contrasts between the attitudes and approaches of the English characters and the Irish ones.
My 10-year-old son watched WOLFWALKERS with me and quite liked that the animation styles didn’t look like a typical animated film from a big studio, calling it out on his own. A big wolf fan, he also liked that the wolves seemed more cuddly and friendly than real wolves and those depicted in other animated films.
While you probably won’t find HERSELF (rated R) and WOLFWALKERS (rated PG) billed as a double feature anywhere, they each offer important variations on the themes of fear, hope and family. In HERSELF, Sandra doesn’t allow her fear of her abusive husband to paralyze her, striving to overcome the obstacles to try for a better outcome; in WOLFWALKERS, while the rest of the city gives in to their exaggerated fear of the wolves, Robyn opens her heart to a different interpretation of the misunderstood creatures. The main characters in each film — despite very different struggles — must hold onto the hope they can win their battles, no matter how powerful the other side may appear. And finally, whether it’s blood family, chosen family or both, these films celebrate the power inherent in a family at its best, that particular kind of giving and getting of support, seeing each other with open hearts even when it is hard and striving together when all seems lost.
HERSELF is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
WOLFWALKERS is available on Apple TV+.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse and/or intimate partner violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800.799.SAFE (7233) has resources to help. From the organization’s website: The Hotline is a leading resource to provide audiences with important information and data about domestic violence and services to access safety from abusive relationships from anywhere in the U.S. and its territories, available 24/7 in more than 200 languages. All calls to The Hotline are confidential.
About The Author – Bryn MacKinnon