This Netflix movie is Vanessa Kirby. At no point during the film, are you not thinking of her character alone.
There are other storylines, but they don’t matter as much as what revolves around Martha’s thoughts. We’re used to seeing Kirby in action movies such as ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’ and ‘Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw,’ but as the grieving mother, Martha, she outshines those characters with a performance that could place her in the most coveted role in Hollywood; that of Oscar contender. A scene between her and Ellen Burstyn, who plays her mother Elizabeth, is so tremendous, so memorable, it’s almost the sole reason for watching ‘Pieces of a Woman,’ also helping to sell the reason for the title.
While Martha is giving birth, the opening scene gives you a firsthand look at what’s going on as no one has before. It’s harsh and gripping, so much so, you can’t take your eyes off the screen through its duration. What comes after this scene is what the movie centers.
Director Kornél Mundruczó’s cinematographer, Benjamin Loeb, was so skilled at placing you in the moment, you were almost coaching the young mother as she went through her rehearsed birthing techniques. We’re with Martha and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) through their entire ordeal. When contractions start, they reach out to their midwife, who is to help deliver the infant in their home. It turns out that she happens to be in labor herself, so a surrogate named Eva, played by Molly Parker, is sent in her place. They don’t know this midwife but trust theirs enough to use her instead of going to the hospital. They hold firm to their desire to let the baby come when she’s ready, not to be delivered on a hospital’s schedule.
Halfway through this, you’re dug in, desperate to see everything work out fine, but by how the scene is directed, you feel something isn’t right. Then Eva gets concerned about the baby’s heart rate. She wants the young couple to make the right decision and go to the hospital, but they hesitate. After the delivery, they seem to be out of the weeds, but something goes wrong, and the little girl, who was okay a moment ago, turns blue and dies. What follows is the distraught couple trying to keep everything together. They are encouraged by Elizabeth to take legal action against Eva, who is now facing five years in prison for gross negligence and not being adequately prepared to deliver the child.
In their home, plants are dying, dishes are piling up, and Martha and Sean are no longer getting along. She barely communicates with him and what they used to enjoy, sex being one of them, seems to be a thing of the past. In an attempt to ignite their passion for one another again, Sean tries to have sex but underappreciates the value of taking things slowly. This only leads to more distance between the two. She’s heartbroken and detached, and he’s lonely and frustrated. LaBeouf does a good job playing a man grieving for the loss of a child he was all in for, while at the same time, being unable to keep from losing the woman he loves.
Everyone in her life has a say in how Martha should be acting after what she went through, especially her mother. She is dealing with her child’s death her way, inwardly rather than by acting out, but this is seen as cold or stubborn. Not taking others’ advice, the movie then becomes an intense family drama with Elizabeth regularly involved in her daughter’s affairs. Wealthy and privileged, she wants everything her way and controls Martha by giving her money and making decisions she shouldn’t be driving. Does Martha need a car? Bought. Is the midwife at fault? Trial. Elizabeth isn’t fond of Sean? Gone. Not surprisingly, it isn’t that difficult for her to make that happen after months of the couple barely speaking, and Sean was seemingly taking the blame for everything. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth gets her day in court. Martha’s cousin Suzanne, played by ‘Succession’s’ Sarah Snook, is the lawyer in the case, sure Eva will serve time in prison. What we see is another piece of Martha fall from her. This time she is freed from what has held her down for so long. She liberates herself more by making sure that the short time her daughter was in the world meant something.
‘Pieces of a Woman’ is a haunting and profoundly personal must-see. That said, the beautiful music by Howard Shore helps create that tone masterfully. While it is dispiriting, it’s intimate and loving at the same time. It sends a message to its audience that whatever the tragedy that may befall you, whatever guilt you may feel for the loss of something, there’s always hope in one form or another if one looks for it with the right frame of mind.
Pieces of a Woman
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Writer: Kata Wéber
Stars: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, and Ellen Burstyn
Running Time: 2h 06m