A little bit late watching this one but better late than never. Pieces of a Woman is the heartbreaking drama following Martha (Vanessa Kirby), a woman who loses her child during birth. Directed by Kornél Mundruczó and a script written by Kata Wéber, Pieces of a Woman is a film that is an absolute masterclass of acting by all involved. A really poignant portrayal of grief and how difficult it is to find closure from such a traumatic event. With supporting turns from Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn who play Martha’s partner, Sean and mother, Elizabeth, respectively, this film is not an easy watch by any means for obvious reasons but it is an intricate character study that feels authentic while shedding light on an issue that is commonly unspoken off due to taboo. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it received unanimous praise and Kirby walking away with the Best Actress prize. Scooped up by Netflix, Pieces of a Woman has been in the awards race for a while and eagerly awaiting its release.
The first thing to discuss is the opening half hour in which we see the excruciating birth scene in which Martha has a difficult labour with tragic result as the baby dies shortly after being born. With her original midwife caught up with another birth, replacement Eva (Molly Parker) steps in to assist Martha. This opening act is by far one of the most unflinching scenes I have come across as we see the whole birthing process from the relief when the baby is born to the tragic death a few moments later. The way it is directed is relentless without giving a moment to breathe to the point where the scene completely immerses the audience into its chaos. The physical pain of the situation is too much for Martha that she quickly becomes deranged and cannot control what she says or the sounds she makes. Knowing what the scene is going to result in and seeing that level of distress makes the experience of watching it even more devastating.
Kirby, previously known for her stellar performance as Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown, pulls out all the stops as grieving Martha. Her acting is on par with actors who have been giving decades of flawless performances. We feel Martha’s physical and emotional pain in the first act and that devastation as she comes to terms with what has happened. Although the film doesn’t have the same level of momentum as the first act, Kirby keeps us gripped as she delves into Martha’s inability to move on or seek help for her trauma. Initially Martha wishes to remove any proof that the baby even existed hoping that this will help her to move on to the next chapter but she feels pulled back by her family, especially her mother, who insists that they should hold a funeral for the baby before burying her. It’s clear that Martha wants to move on but just doesn’t know what to do in order to be able to. The scene in which she testifies at Eva’s trial and is forced to describe what her birthing experience was like is hugely intense with Kirby using that intensity to deliver her performance through movement and emotion and not just by her words.
In support we have Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s overbearing mother, Elizabeth. She clearly has Martha’s best interest at heart but she doesn’t allow her daughter to truly have space to grieve and this puts an enormous amount of friction on their relationship. Burstyn makes the most of the small role she has as is expected of her and proves to rise to Kirby’s leading performance. Her speech to Martha about her own birth and upbringing hammers home just how great Burstyn is. I would have liked to have seen more scenes between Elizabeth and Martha just to show more of their relationship dynamic rather than the limited arguments we see. I think that the film would have benefitted from seeing how they act around each other when things are more settled.
Overall, Pieces of a Woman may fall a little short in terms of keeping a steady momentum in the script following the incredible first act but the strong performances, particularly by Kirby make it a film to watch this coming awards season. I have no doubt that Kirby will lock in her first Academy Award nomination and hopefully this is a sign of a fruitful career for years to come.
What did you think of Pieces of a Woman? Let me know in the comments below!
Pieces of a Woman is available to stream now on Netflix.