Grief has proven to be one of cinema’s favorite themes to explore. And regardless of how many films have tackled the subject, we’re always finding potent new stories that plow this deeply human ground. One of the latest is “Pieces of a Woman” from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber.
The film premiered in September at the Venice International Film Festival where star Vanessa Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. Strengthening its resume, Martin Scorsese serves as its executive producer and 3-time Oscar winner Howard Shore composes the movie’s beautiful and evocative score.
But “Pieces of a Woman” always comes back to the performances namely Kirby’s. The English actress grabbed a lot of big screen attention for her appearances in the blockbusters “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and “Hobbs & Shaw”. But “Pieces” sees her in a meatier leading role, working with heavy material and burrowing deep into an emotionally shattered character. Kirby gives a career-defining performance, one that delicately but truthfully examines various facets of loss with an honest and clear-eyed perspective.
The film opens with what will probably be it’s most discussed and debated scene. It’s a 20-minute-plus uncut child delivery sequence set in the apartment of a Boston couple Martha (Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf). The scene begins with Martha having mild contractions. The couple follow their well rehearsed home-birth gameplan and call their midwife but she’s tied up with another client. So she sends over a trusted colleague named Eve (played by an excellent Molly Parker).
Mundruczó shoots the sequence in one steady unbroken take, with camera movements so subtle they’re easy to miss. He follows every step of their carefully planned procedure while Kirby strips away any hint of glamour and artifice. The scene moves through the intensifying labor straight to child birth which ends in heart-shattering tragedy. The devastating effects of the film’s opening reverberates throughout the remainder of the movie as this once intimate couple crumbles under the weight of sorrow and loss.
The bulk of the story chronicles Martha’s attempt to navigate her grief. The film does a good job portraying the crushing effects of psychological trauma as Martha attempts to regain some semblance of a normal life. But everywhere she looks she sees reminders of what she lost: a young girl in a department store, baby dresses on a mannequin. Meanwhile her relationship with Sean can’t quite get back on track. LaBeouf is really good as a blue-collar construction worker and recovering alcoholic. Sean has always clashed with Martha’s white-collar family especially her domineering mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) who feels her daughter could do better. Of course both Sean and Elizabeth have their own ideas of how Martha should handle the tragedy.
Mundruczó and Wéber have pieced together a thoughtful movie about a woman’s painful quest to not only put her life back together, but to find her true self in the process. Not to be who her husband wants her to be or who her mother wants her to be. But to truly find herself. There are some interesting but slightly uneven story turns especially in the second half. But the movie never loses its central focus and Kirby gives a knock-out performance that more people need to be talking about as we enter awards season. “Pieces of a Woman” premieres on Netflix January 7th.
VERDICT – 4 STARS