You may have already read about the opening of Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber’s staggering new drama and its sensational execution and dramatics but if not, it’s not a spoiler to say it revolves around childbirth, its unique pressures, and stresses and, of course, the little bundle of joy that comes at the end. Sometimes, however much you can plan for the day in question and what comes next, it is never easy or simple. In this opening salvo, we witness a labour from beginning to end, with all the agony and joy showed to us as if we were in the room, right there as expectant mother and father navigate the unique stresses childbirth brings.
We begin in Fall as Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are preparing for the arrival of their first child. The baby shower is done with, Martha has finished work and they have a new people carrier to help them get around, paid for by Martha’s overbearing mother (Ellen Burstyn). They have settled on a homebirth with their midwife but on the evening of her labour, she is unable to get to them in a timely manner so replacement Eva (Molly Parker) steps in. Everything seems to be going according to plan until Eva notices some problems with the baby, which ultimately lead to tragedy.
Such is the power of that opening sequence that is impossible not to be thinking about long afterwards, and that is the point: no-one can escape grief or loss, the pain it causes and the changes, big and small, it will cause and that’s what Martha, in particular, is faced with. Grief takes all different forms, some bounce back immediately, others take weeks, months, years to see past the permanent scars Mundruczó and Wéber’s film thoroughly and touchingly explores that space, especially in this horrific scenario. Her family are trying to force her past her mourning whilst Sean wears it all on his sleeve, his anger and resentment on the surface at all times, but no-one can begin to imagine what such an incident has done and the damage it has and will continue to cause until the day she dies. It doesn’t always work and there are moments, particularly it the films third act, that feels slightly too manipulative and too neat against the rest of the film to make it a masterpiece, but they don’t derail all the good work that goes before it.
Key to the success of the film is its lead and it’s easy to see why Kirby has already been lauded with acclaim and prizes: quite simply, she is extraordinary, delivering one of the most exceptional performances of the last decade. Yes, she is simply that good and she may well walk away with even more come Easter time. Spellbinding from minute one, Kirby commits so fully that it’s hard to ever take your eyes off her as she completely immerses herself as much as she can in Martha’s head, the pain and suffering she is going through, and the agony that comes after, from all angles. It’s a brave, bold but devastating turn that is punctured with the kind of rare nuance that comes once in a blue moon. She is simply stunning throughout. Ably supported by a remarkable turn by Burstyn that’s equally heart-breaking, whilst LaBeouf, Parker, Sarah Snook, Bennie Safdie and Iliza Shlesinger make up a superb ensemble.
It would be remiss of us not to say that Pieces of a Woman is something of a painful watch and, for most of it, extremely uncomfortable given its subject matter, but when almost everything is handled with grace and humility, it’s impossible to ignore. The most heart-breaking film of its type since Manchester by the Sea, this is a triumph of acting, the human spirit and the strength of motherhood, in all its forms.
Drama | USA, 2021 | 15 | 7th January 2021 | Netflix Original | Dir.Kornél Mundruczó | Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Bennie Safdie, Iliza Shlesinger