A Netflix Original Picture, Written by Kata Weber, Directed by Kornel Mundruczo.
Pieces of a Woman follows Martha (Vanessa Kirby) after the results of a heart-breaking home birth leaves her grappling with the profound emotional fallout, isolated from her partner and family by a chasm of grief. It is a slow-burn and thoughtful drama, rooted deeply in character and specifically the study of one woman as she tries to come to terms with an event that many can only imagine, and hope never happens to them.
The film opens almost immediately at the preparations for a home birth, as Martha and Sean (Shia La Beouf) realise that the birth is happening and that their first-choice midwife is unable to attend, so they are joined by replacement Eva (Molly Parker). What follows is a long take that appears to last almost 30 minutes, tracking the minute-by-minute progress of the home birth. It is a sequence that is not only a technical marvel, but is incredibly effective from a narrative point of view as it is paired with some stunningly naturalistic acting to create a complete sense that this is a real birth and you are hooked in and invested in what happens. With every tiny twist, turn and moment, the tension continues to ratchet up to an almost unbearable level that makes you want to look away, and when the scene reaches its heart-breaking conclusion, you already feel exhausted, and then the title finally appears.
Understandably, the film does not maintain this level of tension throughout, but the level of quality and engaging content also drops off significantly once the title card appears and the narrative begins. We then launch into a slow and mournful look at the devastation the loss has caused to the entire family, and while this is a very worthwhile thing to explore, the way that it is done here is overly long and packed full of unnecessary and cliched narrative decisions which distract from what would otherwise be a thoughtful study of one woman’s journey to self-healing, but instead ventures too deep into soap opera misery porn. The story aspect that particularly didn’t work and felt entirely unnecessary to what the film really wanted to look at was Sean’s affair with Martha’s cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook). It just felt like a cliched screenwriting trope used to add more drama into a scenario that is already incredibly volatile, and something about the whole story point and how it is utilised just feels so weak.
Apart from the smart and inventive direction shown, the real reason this film works is the performances, and especially that of leading lady Vanessa Kirby. She has received critical acclaim in recent years as she broke through on The Crown (2016) and starred in blockbusters like Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, but this is her first major leading role, and yet she plays it like a seasoned pro. It is a very internalised performance, with a surprisingly little amount of typical showy emotional scenes, and yet she makes you feel every emotion that Martha is feeling, as the world around her scrambles to make themselves feel like they are helping her, when they are really doing the opposite. She has a huge future and could win multiple awards for this performance.
The rest of the cast is also mostly good too in support of Kirby, with Ellen Burstyn delivering a really strong supporting performance that includes a much-talked about monologue that may be played repeatedly if she becomes the oldest Oscar nominee. Many of Shia LaBeouf’s scenes are increasingly tough to watch with the knowledge of the multiple accusations of abuse against him, especially scenes where Sean himself displays abusive behaviour, so it is hard to objectively comment. He is impressive in the film from an acting standpoint and brings an energy that is necessary for the conflicts to grow in the film, but for now I think that is all that needs to be said. The only other performance of note is Molly Parker, who appears at the start and end of the film, but the character is in a deeply different place when she reappears. She plays it so charming and almost quirky at first, and then in the aftermath, is clearly emotionally devastated, and while she doesn’t have many lines or scenes, her performance is crucial.
This is far from the perfect film and could have done with cutting away some of the runtime and plot points, but in the end, its an emotionally devastating film about a woman who has to come to terms with a loss that is almost impossible to comprehend. No scene sums it up better than the courtroom scene near the end, where Martha says that she “can’t take compensation, because that would imply (she) can be compensated for the loss, and (she) can’t be”, perfectly summing up the agony of the situation.
Rating = 3.5/5