Pieces of a Woman

Shia LeBeouf as Sean and Vanessa Kirby as Martha in Pieces of a Woman on Netflix. (Photo: Benjamin Loeb / Netflix)
Shia LeBeouf as Sean and Vanessa Kirby as Martha in Pieces of a Woman on Netflix. (Photo: Benjamin Loeb / Netflix)


3/5 Stars


A Boston couple's life changes forever when a home birth goes awry. The midwife faces charges of criminal negligence. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) has to find a way to work through her grief, while still dealing with the court case against the midwife, her difficult relationship with her partner, Sean (Shia LeBeouf), and her domineering mother. 


Sometimes one very good performance is all a film needs to make it stick in your memory. And Pieces of a Woman boasts an extraordinary one by Vanessa Kirby. 

You watch the pain as it creases through her body and share in the agonising experience. You relate, you grieve and at times, you feel as if you should turn away to give her the privacy that she clearly desires.

Pieces of a Woman is a story about grief. A young couple is forced to deal with a difficult situation when their baby dies soon after birth, and it brings all their emotions to the surface.

It is an interesting exploration of how different people deal with grief. For Martha, it is all inward, and only visible on her face, in her posture, in the hollow way she responds to people. For Sean, it's all outward – he gets aggressive, he turns to substances as a coping mechanism, and starts acting out. For Martha's mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), it is about assigning blame and using her power and influence to indict the midwife for the death of her grandchild. 

Vanessa Kirby is a powerhouse in this film. Known for her role as Princess Margaret in The Crown, Kirby has a very charming sense of elegance, where every move seems seamless and smooth. This was part of the genius of casting her in the role. In the beginning of the film, prior to the birth of the baby, you can see how effortless she is with her family, her work colleagues and Sean.

But after the labour, every action seems deliberate and every movement rigid. It always seems as if she has 1 000 thoughts going through her head at any moment. You see that shift in her as an actress and it, in turn, depicts so well the journey of grief that many people experience. 

Shia LeBeouf is also excellent as Sean. Alongside Martha, you watch as Sean breaks down piece by piece, as he struggles to reconcile his need to be close to Martha with her lack of response to his actions. And as you see him begin to relapse, his control over the situation, his relationship and his job begin to unravel. LeBeouf is a controversial figure since abuse accusations surfaced from his ex-girlfriend FKA twigsNetflix has since dropped him from its For Your Consideration page for the upcoming awards season. 

The film starts with its focus on this young couple and their journey to parenthood. As it progresses, it grows to become about Martha's larger family. Martha's mother buys a car for her and Sean and the salesperson is Martha's brother-in-law, Chris (Benny Safdie). The lawyer for their case against the mid-wife is Martha's cousin, Suzanne (Sarah Snook), who also begins an affair with Sean. This is all treated very flippantly in the script. This family intercepted every aspect of this couple's life. We never learn anything about Sean's family. Did they know about the baby? Were they excited? 

And then there is Elizabeth, Martha's mother, who is wealthy and controlling. A holocaust survivor, she has a monologue about her own difficult birth and how her mother hid her from the Nazis. If you take a moment to think about it, Burstyn seems too old to be the mother of 32-year-old Vanessa Kirby (she would have been 56 when she was born) and her story seems to get convoluted all of a sudden. But you can almost forgive the inconsistencies because of Burstyn's performance. The controlling nature of the character is there from the first scene when she buys the car, to her final scene in the film. She uses her money and influence to get the results that she wants. 

The film was directed by Kornél Mundruczó (White God) and written by Kata Wéber. The Hungarians are also a couple in real life.

The most interesting choice in the film is that the scene in which Martha goes into labour is almost 30 minutes long, and the title sequence is only shown after this. Martha's chosen midwife cannot make it because she has another labour at the same time. So an alternative, Eva (Molly Parker), helps her through the difficult childbirth.

Vanessa Kirby sat in on a real-life birth as research for the role and you can see it in the rawness of her performance during this scene. This scene can be extremely difficult and triggering especially because there's a sense of dread around it. You know something bad is coming, but you cannot help but marvel at Kirby's acting in this scene. 

The film tries to do too much. When the trial against the midwife, Eva begins, the tonal shift is very blatant and takes away from the subtle and simmering tone that the film held previously. Whether it's the case, Sean's affair with the cousin, or the hints of dementia, the film struggles when it turns away from the couple's journey to overcome their grief. Pieces of a Woman is a showcase of performances from Kirby, LeBeouf, and Burstyn and an interesting exploration of grief. 



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