Vanessa Kirby shines, merits deserved Oscar nomination for her role in Pieces of a Woman

By: Steve Pulaski

Playing catch-up on some Oscar-nominated films in time for the Academy Awards on April 25th.

If you choose to press play on Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman — or beat me to the punch and have already — I surmise you won’t soon forget the opening 30 minutes. It features some of the most harrowing filmmaking of the last year, and the way the ensuing tragedy looms over the film is something you can’t help but feel for the remainder.

Most of those minutes consist of a homebirth in the apartment of a young couple named Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and Martha (Vanessa Kirby, The Crown). It starts with Martha in labor and ends with her giving birth to her daughter. It’s one masterfully choreographed, uninterrupted take, bereft of music and rife with tension on top of stress. You can’t take your eyes off the screen even as Martha struggles with an exceptionally difficult birth at the hands of an overwhelmed midwife (Molly Parker) substituting for the one they expected. Crushingly, it ends in tragedy as they lose the baby shortly after it enters this world.

Losing a child due to a stillbirth or birthing complications is something you wouldn’t wish on a mortal enemy. It’s also not the kind of thing you necessarily opt to dramatize unless you’ve lived that hell. Director Kornél Mundruczó and his partner Kata Wéber (who wrote the screenplay) unfortunately did. Most films use the loss of a child at birth as a revelation for a troubled character, or a flashback that seeks to contextualize something about the narrative. Mundruczó and Wéber illustrate the event and aftermath in explicit detail.

Following the exhausting opening, the subsequent 90 minutes deal with the ostensible impossibility of things ever being the same for everyone involved.

Sean and Martha must figure out how to go on living and working through the grief, even if it might torpedo their relationship. Sean is a Boston-area construction worker, quicker to react than he is to listen. Throughout Pieces of a Woman, he searches for someone to blame. He’s enraged at a doctor who can’t give him a sufficient cause of death for their child even after a weeks-long autopsy. Martha, on the other hand, becomes numb to the world, mostly because everyone around her is telling her what she should do and how she should feel. Specifically, her wealthy mother (Ellen Burstyn), who is orchestrating legal action on the midwife all while hellbent on doing everything for her daughter — including the lion’s share of the grieving.

One look at Sean and Martha and you see two broken people in a broken union. In one of the saddest sequences, Sean initiates sex by forcing Martha’s hand down his pants. She couldn’t be less in the mood and Sean knows it. It’s a desperate attempt to reinvigorate intimacy that winds up being cumbersome for both. Sean is a recovering drug addict who relapses soon after, but it’s not because of the sex. It all builds to a confrontation at a family dinner party hosted by Martha’s mother. Mundruczó breaks out another anxiety-ridden long-take that weaves through the matriarch’s mansion, culminating with a charged monologue from Burstyn, who hurls words at her daughter that might as well be knives.

Pieces of a Woman is a film less about healing from trauma and more about surviving it. Carrying the project is Vanessa Kirby in a performance many don’t give even after decades of acting. She crafts an exceptional and deeply uncomfortable portrayal of grief — the rage, the anguish, and the numbness — all with nuance. LaBeouf is solid, yet he’s giving another variation on his man-child character-type, so much so that it’s a wonder what the reticent Martha saw in Sean in the first place. Supporting performers Burstyn, Sarah Snook, as Martha’s cousin, and Benny Safdie (co-director of Uncut Gems) as Martha’s brother, don’t waste a moment of their screentime. It’s a cornucopia of great acting all around.

Pieces of a Woman is Hungarian director Mundruczó’s first English-language film following his acclaimed White God and relatively mixed Jupiter’s Moon. The performances are so grand and the first hour packs so much of a punch that it suggests the film should be building to something greater than courtroom theatrics and a sentimental conclusion. I suppose you could consider it Mundruczó and Wéber’s refusal to concede to crippling sadness and being stuck in bleak neutrality. Let it be anyone but my flawed self to tell anyone how to grieve.

NOTE: Pieces of a Woman is now streaming on Netflix.

Grade: B+

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