Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger. Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó.
Pieces of a Woman comes with two of the obligatory things that come from a drama film being released around this time. The aggressive Oscar buzz and the mud throwing that follows Oscar buzz.
The film itself follows Martha, an executive who has her life altered forever when her baby dies post-delivery, with a court case against the midwife looming her introverted grief pushes everyone away.
Pieces of a Woman starts with a twenty-minute unbroken take of Vanessa Kirby giving birth to her baby with the help of husband Shia LaBeouf and midwife Molly Parker. It’s a confident, impressive feat that never actually feels like it’s being flashy or showy in the way these usually can, instead it feels like a one act play unto itself. There’s a confidence to director Kornel Mundruczo and a naturalism to the scripting by Kate Weber, both of whom share “a film by” credit at the beginning.
After this the film takes a slower more contemplative pace, it becomes an examination of grief and the toll it takes on people involved. Pieces of a Woman is at it’s strongest when it puts it’s faith in lead Kirby, shedding the baggage of her role in The Crown, Kirby gives a layered portrait of that hardest thing to do on screen – internalisation. Grief of her nature, to go inward, is hard to portray on screen because all the work is being done on the inside and yet Kirby that’s to her soulful eyes and mastery of a good pause manages it perfectly.
LaBeouf as her partner Sean gets a slightly easier time with his role. Yes, LaBeouf has issues and it’s always going to cloud the awards conversation, which is a pity because like his turn in last year’s Honey Boy this is another layered portrait of someone with emotional trauma. We get the little insecurities within him, his feelings of being emasculated by his social status, and his inability to properly deal with his grief. His scenes opposite Ellen Burstyn’s stern mother-in-law Elizabeth also show the extent to which he feels like he’s fighting against something.
Burstyn gets to show off as the classic overbearing mother but layers her with depth and with humanity enough that she isn’t beyond the realms of understanding.
For its portrait of a person turning inward, it fails when it attempts to look at the grief that a father goes through when they lose a child, our sympathy is with Martha, but Sean is also hurting yet perhaps because of the baggage LaBeouf brings, or the character’s history of substance abuse, we don’t feel for him as much as we should. This was his child too, and he has lost her, yet the film doesn’t think that’s worthy of much respect.
As it builds to this court case contrivances fall into place, Sean begins an affair with the lawyer helping them who happens to Martha’s cousin, and the speed at which dementia begins setting in to Burstyn’s character is a little like another issue when there was enough to carry the film.
Even so, for its flaws, Pieces of a Woman is anchored by Kirby’s strength as a performer, and the support of LaBeouf and Burstyn, while also throwing you things you never thought you’d see – Kirby’s vagina cresting a baby’s head, LaBeouf’s flaccid penis, twenty-eight different shots of Kirby eating an apple.
It’s a moving, and haunting portrait of grief that at times can’t quite get its focus right or its balance, but when it trusts it’s lead to deliver the goods, this is as good as it gets for introversion on screen.