When a young mother’s home birth ends in unfathomable tragedy, she begins a year-long odyssey of mourning that fractures relationships with loved ones in this deeply personal story of a woman learning to live alongside her loss.
Young love, a new marriage, and the excitement of becoming parents for the first time implodes when a tragic accident occurs during the birthing process. Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star in the new Netflix film “Pieces of a Woman” as Martha and Sean, the mismatched but charming couple who find themselves in an inexorable downward spiral after losing their baby. While the film expertly touches upon the emotional havoc that Martha experiences, it also captures the devastating aftershocks for everyone in her circle. Unfortunately, there are many pieces of the story that seem to be missing, leaving the viewer hanging and needing more information about each of the characters.
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Thankfully, the final ninety minutes of Kornel Mundruczo’s “Pieces of a Woman” isn’t nearly as harrowing as the first thirty. That’s not to say that it’s a walk in the park by any means; this intense drama, driven by a fully committed Vanessa Kirby, proves to be an exhausting, brutal examination of grief and the struggles one woman has moving on from an unspeakable tragedy. To be sure, the film is heavy lifting but it ultimately proves cathartic, though the meandering path it takes taxes the patience of the viewer at times. Yet just when you’re about to give up on it, Kirby pulls you back in; her ferocious turn cannot be denied, a compelling, captivating performance that transcends the screenplay’s shortcomings.
A 24-minute scene, shot in a single take opens the film, Martha (Kirby) having opted for a home birth, assisted by her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and doula Eva (Molly Parker). Mundruczo’s roving camera follows the actors around their apartment, tension steadily building throughout, Martha seemingly in control of the situation, then suddenly overwhelmed, all of which gives way to elation once the child is born. However, the couple’s happiness is short-lived as the baby dies minutes later.
As one would expect, this taxes the couple, each responding differently to the tragedy, neither fully grasping what the other is feeling. The disconnect between Kirby and LaBeouf is palpable. A pit forms in your stomach watching their awkward attempts at communication or reconciliation, knowing full well they’ll never recover. They know it too, their inevitable parting adding an extra layer of tension to all they’re contending with.
However, “Pieces” is far more than just a domestic drama. Mundruczo employs plenty of long takes throughout, the film at times resembling a stage play, the tension steadily and effectively building thanks to the fine work of the veteran cast. The bulk of the film focuses on Martha and her struggle to right the foundering ship her life has become, her efforts hindered by her well-meaning but overbearing mother (Ellen Burstyn). Focused on her own grief, her insensitivity to her daughter’s own suffering cuts like a knife. That she cannot understand that the misspelling of her granddaughter’s name on a memorial stone would send Martha into hysterics speaks to her insular behavior, a biting moment the cast and Mundruczo capture in such an intimate matter, one of many that are uncomfortable to watch.
As riveting as Martha’s journey is, the script by Kata Weber gets off point at times, the movie suffering in the process. More than a few scenes run too long, others are repetitious and need to be trimmed, while a subplot revolving around the trial of the blameless doula seems calculated, present only so a dramatic courtroom moment can play out, Martha taking centerstage so that she might finally find the strength to move on. This simply isn’t necessary and in this moment, the film comes close to resembling a “Lifetime” movie.
Fortunately, this is the only egregious miscalculation and the movie rights itself to deliver a quiet, poignant conclusion that hits home with far more power than you might expect. Some may object to the tidy nature of the “Piece’s” ending but there’s a satisfaction in seeing how Martha’s journey ends, a validation that some small modicum of peace can be found after weathering a seemingly fatal storm.
Pieces of a Woman is streaming on Netflix.