NETFLIX FILM REVIEW: PIECES OF A WOMAN (2020)
Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó
Produced by: Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, Aaron Ryder
Screenplay by: Kata Wéber
Based on the play: Pieces of a Woman by Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber
Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails etc.
***THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS***
Every human being has been present at one birth at least – namely their own. Not that one can remember or recall the experience, however, it is something all of us have in common. Many more people, either as parents, or life partners, or medical staff, or relatives and friends have also witnessed a child being born into the world. Birth is both a magnificent and tumultuous wonder of nature. Moreover, it can, while delivering a miracle into the world, be extremely painful for the person giving birth. The incredible progress of medical science means that it has never been safer. However, as my partner experienced when our son was born, it can be traumatic if the procedure has issues. Thankfully, our son was fine after the birth, but almost eighteen-hours in labour on an under-staffed and chaotic maternity ward was stressful. Thus, I was able to identify very much with the characters in the searing grief drama, PIECES OF A WOMAN (2020).
When I say identify, I mean I felt like I was really with the couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) as prospective parents. Martha is heavily pregnant and when Sean returns from work as an engineer she goes into labour. Sean works on building huge bridges. Yet, as events unfold within Pieces of a Woman (2020), bridges are the last thing built metaphorically and emotionally. The opening scene is a cinematic tour-de-force which portrays the couple’s home birth in one long moving and harrowing take. Brilliantly filmed and acted, by Kirby and LaBeouf, the one-take device is employed to devastating effect as it impacts emotional power rather being a filmic gimmick. When their first-choice midwife cannot attend, the replacement, Eva (Molly Parker) arrives. The birth is not without problems and the sequence is both intense and suspenseful. The filmmakers really put you in the heart of the trauma. Quickly concern for the new-born child becomes relief when it is born alive. Alas, Martha and Sean’s joy suddenly turns to misery when nature deals the couple a fateful blow.
After the relentless tension of the opening act, Pieces of a Woman (2020), along with Sean and Martha, enters a redoubtable period of grieving. Martha’s personality prior to the event seemed outgoing and confident. After the death of her child she, unsurprisingly, transitions into an insular and hollow shell. Sean, on the other hand, is more explosive. He openly cries and shouts and self-harms by relapsing back into drug and alcohol addiction. Sean, more than Martha, attempts to fix their broken relationship, but Martha’s pain is too great and the distance between them only increases. Martha’s mother, Elizabeth Weiss (Ellen Burstyn), attempts to get some control back by taking court action again the midwife, Eva. Further, she desperately attempts to thwart her daughter from allowing the child’s body to be donated to medical science. In such moments Ellen Burstyn’s performance is absolutely formidable. Indeed, the scenes she shares with Vanessa Kirby are some of the best in the film.
Based on the play of the same name, Pieces of a Woman (2020), is overall an utterly gruelling emotional experience. I must admit I found it difficult to reach Martha’s character as she was so isolated for much of the film. However, that is exactly what the writer, Kata Wéber, and director, Kornél Mundruczó want you to feel. The loss of a child is never going to be an easy experience and it is something an individual will never get over. As I followed Martha’s journey intensely the smallest incremental shift in her personality is felt massively. Personally, I would have preferred more focus on Molly Parker’s character during the second act and more outwardly emotional scenes. Because those within the film featuring LaBeouf, Kirby and Burstyn are so compelling. Vanessa Kirby, in particular, is stunning as a woman cut-off from the world by this devastating grief, making Pieces of a Woman (2020) a memorable human drama that makes you feel fortunate to be alive.