Portrayed by: Lily James
Film: Mamma Mia II: Here We Go Again
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again got a lot of things right as a sequel and I’ll forever stand in this film’s corner as one of its advocates, but where it was unmatched in, what it did for me especially is that it brought to the screen something I hadn’t seen someone articulate with such vigilance as Donna does.“The very best things happen unexpectedly” served as the film’s theme and the character’s journey with such organic occurrence that from beginning to end, feels like one of the most cathartic arcs.
When we first got news of the sequel I was stoked. When we found out had died, I was definitely not as thrilled and thus became incredibly skeptical. But then I remember walking out of the theater the first time after having sobbed my eyes out, and I remember thinking, it’s better—it’s somehow even better. And the way this second film touches on character might just be one of the reasons it works so well. ABBA is timeless for a reason—it’s transcendent of pure joy every single time, but more than that, where their lyrics are vulnerable, they excel at celebrating women, and this film does so beautifully by bringing its heroine front and center in all her flawed, beautifully complex glory.
Donna Sheridan is so much more. She’s a woman who was left to her own devices from a young age. She’s a woman with fire in her soul. And she is a woman who’s searching with the very type of arc that reminds viewers of the idea that sometimes, not knowing everything is ultimately the most human way we all connect with each other.
We start off hearing about her desire to travel and first, yes. Where there are means to take up the opportunity to do so, take them. It is a luxury to travel, a great tremendous privilege not everyone has, but goodness when you do, do not pass it up. And that’s sort of where this deep dive is going—exploring the idea of taking chances, especially as women, and especially as women who can. We learn most about ourselves when we take chances on ourselves. It’s what Donna Sheridan would want us to do.
But here’s the thing, and here’s the part where maybe I was the only one who sat in a dark theater sobbing like a baby. Or maybe I wasn’t and we could all be brought together by an understanding bigger than ourselves. When Donna tells Harry that she’s searching for her destiny and she has a feeling it’s in Greece, without fully knowing why but believing that it’s in a specific island, I felt that. I understood that feeling down to my very bones.
Sometimes, people know exactly why they want to go to a specific place, and sometimes, you go to that place and you realize, nope this is not it. But then other times, you go somewhere unexpected, not knowing, and for reasons you can’t ever bring yourself to comprehend you feel it—all the way down to your bones. There is a reason you are here. There is a reason every single time you listened to that one song that talked about that one place way back when you were a kid that you felt something completely indescribable. You felt seen. You felt understood. It made complete sense even when it did not, and even if you cannot put the why into words, the feeling you are consumed with is enough for you.
Donna Sheridan always knew and she understood one thing more than anything, which was the importance of her choices. The determination and the adamant desire to be true to the things she wanted—the people she wanted, and the places she wanted. The music frames Donna—the dancing queen—the very one. And when she starts singing “I Have A Dream” it frames her narrative beautifully. It is not just the fact that she sees the good in everything, but it is the fact that she sees the good in broken things. She sees the good in rundown places and complicated people, and she loves through them fiercely. She loves with a fire in her soul and a dream in her heart because the beautiful things are the broken ones. And the dreams, even before they become a reality are the things that are wondrous to us—good to us. Whatever they may be, however they look, they make us who we are.
It is this very idea that trusting in one’s own intuition, one’s own beliefs, and one’s own spirit. It is hard to get there. It is hard to feel like you can be good and complete even through all the complexities, but finding something—anything to hold onto that is yours, that is right for you is the very thing Donna believes in, and it is the very thing that is reflected throughout this film beautifully.
What happens when a storm comes? A lot can happen and a lot likely will, literal or metaphorical, life is not without its darkness, and life is not without its surprises, but belief is a powerful thing and whatever that belief is placed in, as long as it is right for the believer, right in their soul, then the storms will pass. The storms will pass and you can come out of it to a place where there is song and dance again.
Donna Sheridan is fierce and spirited, but she is also incredibly vulnerable and warm. She is a woman who time and time again proves she can and will be okay on her own, but no one should and when “Andante Andante” is sung we are told of the fact that even through her velocity, she is afraid. It is never easy to let walls down—to trust, to love, and to dive into something with another human being, but she does so because taking chances on herself matters. And in doing so, she chooses to trust in the fact that when given the chance to, people can be good and signs of hope, too. People can show you truth and love and tenderness.
But perhaps one of the things Donna showcases through her arc is something I know I am not alone in knowing. “The Name of the Game” focuses on the women that were told they are puzzle pieces to crack—impossible. A word I have always hated when referring to women. Or anyone for that matter. I was an impossible case. No one could ever reach me. People do not often question why others might be hard to crack or complex. They do not question the things that went on before and this serves as a paradigm to open up to the ones who make it safe enough to. We have all got reasons. Sometimes we do it ourselves because we are afraid. Sometimes we need people to want to get to know us, to care about the cracks and the broken pieces. But the point is, we all have parts of us that are impossible, and every now and then, when we meet the right people, it becomes easier to show those parts to them, too.
We have all got things inside of us that are hard to crack open, and the transparency, the vulnerability in this number is the very reminder of what it means to be a woman with desires—a woman who is told she is too much. But when it feels right, opening up to those who are trying matters. Donna does so, and that is the beautiful part of her arc—she is free and open, but she is vulnerable—she is scared and she is trying. Donna’s story is about celebrating the complexities, embracing the cracks, and dancing through the storms.
Donna Sheridan’s arc also perhaps viewed through the butterfly necklace she always wears is the story of “spiritual rebirth, transformation, hope, and life”—the insect symbolizes a lot and there is a reason it is the one worn around her neck. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again! through Donna, along with her daughter, Sophie and her best friends Tanya and Rosie represents the very cycle that is life. No two people will live their lives the same way, but that is what’s so crucial about what the character represents—the how doe not matter. As long as what you do, in some way uplifts those around you while fixing the broken things in your path, is good—it’s right for you. That very thing, find it, chase it, seize it.
“Do what makes your soul shine”—it is the very thing Donna believed in and it is the very thing that is reflected in her family and friends. It is a cycle. The rest of our lives can be the best of our lives when we hold on tight to our loved ones and chase the dreams our hearts cannot seem to let go of. Do it for you. You deserve to.