Vanessa Kirby solidifies her place as one of the most exciting actresses of her generation with Pieces of a Woman. After stealing two seasons of Netflix’s The Crown with her turn as Princess Margaret, she shows her royal pedigree. Pieces of a Woman gives Kirby a full-throttle dramatic lead and she wastes not a second of it. Hitting the Toronto International Film Festival shortly after winning Best Actress at Venice, her performance as Martha is one of 2020’s best. Before the main title card of Pieces of a Woman graces the screen, Kirby grabs one of this year’s Oscar slots by the jugular.
Mind you, it takes over 20 minutes for the words “Pieces of a Woman” to hit the screen. The opening sequence of Kornél Mundruczó’s riveting drama is longer than most preambles for 007 movies. It’s twice as wild and breathtaking a ride too. Filmed in one bravura long take, the opening showpiece ranks among the most impeccably acted and precisely realised scenes of the year. Few films are so effective in putting audiences into the mind of its protagonist.
The opening set piece of Pieces of a Woman zeroes in on Martha during a life-changing night. It’s September 17 and she is extremely pregnant. Martha and her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are excited to become new parents. Her mom, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) even buys them a mini-van to celebrate their graduation to bourgeois yuppie life. Martha and Sean evoke the epitome of young love as they celebrate being on the precipice of a new family adventure.
The night takes a dramatic turn, however, when Martha feels a little woozy. She starts having early contractions and they speed along. Up comes a gassy burp and labour pains shoot through her body. The baby wants to make an exit and her body doesn’t react like she hoped it would. Plans go further off course when Sean calls their midwife, who informs them that she is in another delivery.
When Eva (Molly Parker) the replacement midwife arrives, she’s a face of reassuring calmness and kindness. Parker is calm, cool, and collected as Eva. The midwife, while not Martha’s preferred choice, seems like exactly the kind of reassuring professional one would want. Martha, however, grows feverish by the second. Her burps become violently gaseous—Kirby could have a second career playing the bagpipes for all we know—and her moans become more guttural. Watching Martha experience labour is like watching Regan endure an exorcism. The sheer physicality of Kirby’s performance is astonishing. It’s pure hell to watch. Martha’s pain registers with visceral stings—as does her fear, which Eva compassionately dissuades.
A dramatic beat, however, turns Pieces of a Woman on its head. Sean asks if everything is okay. Parker, showing mild signs of agitation as Eva fumbles with her resources, pauses before reassuring him that everything’s fine. The long pause punctuates the heart-pounding long take in which the labour nightmare unfolds.
The consequences reverberate throughout Pieces of a Woman as one debates if Eva is incompetent, negligent, or simply human in her hesitation. As Martha and Sean move forward amid a haze of grief, every second of that night—from Martha’s burps to Eva’s composure—is reframed and revisited as the couple and their family seek someone to blame. The breakdown of their once-happy marriage is inevitable, and it unfolds tragically as Martha and Sean grieve the daughter who brought joy to their lives for mere seconds.
Kirby Shines in Ensemble Feat
The script by Kata Wéber, who previously penned Mundruczó’s White God and Jupiter’s Moon, unfolds this intimate tragedy as the seasons change. Each time stamp marks further dissolution in Martha and Sean’s marriage. Martha returns to work, while Sean relapses into alcoholism. They need distractions from each other, as their partner’s face reminds them only of their loss. Elizabeth bitterly wants justice and unravels while seeking closure. The case against Eva becomes a lightning rod in the community, as midwifery itself goes on trial for the baby’s death. Martha’s cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) sees the public sentiment against Eva as a favourable advantage. But this well to-do couple that once embodied joy now personifies the adage that money doesn’t buy happiness. Grief becomes a palpable, resonant, looming weight on this family. Pieces of a Woman is a film that audiences will feel in their bones.
The formidable cast carries the weight of this tragedy. Mundruczó stages several long takes that accentuate the heartache and tension. Each one reverberates with blistering pain and anger. A family dinner, for example, ignites dramatic fireworks when Martha challenges her mother’s desire for retribution. In her finest performance since The Stone Angel, Burstyn lets Elizabeth respond ferociously. Elizabeth, born in the Jewish ghettos, defies her daughter to choose to be alive. The exchange plays out in another urgent long take that, like the opening sequence, imprints itself on the brain.
Pieces of a Woman is a searing family drama about the ways grief and loss transform and divide us. Comparisons to Cassavetes and Bergman are inevitable, but the raw viscerality of the film marks Mundruczó’s first English feature, a Canada/USA co-pro, one with a singular voice. It’s an actor’s showpiece with Kirby expertly commanding the film. It’s a heart-breaking gut-punch of a performance. Burtsyn and Parker are especially fine among the outstanding ensemble of supporting players, although everyone holds their own in the challenging and precisely choreographed set pieces. This daring film lets audience experience heartache firsthand. It’s a gruelling thrill of a movie.