I’ve never really warmed to Vanessa Kirby before now. Her mildly chilled, aristocratic detachment meant she was well cast as a villain in Mission Impossible: Fallout and as Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown (claim to fame: I appear momentarily in The Crown S1 ep 10 as a musician). But generally I don’t find much depth in her characterisations and she was very two-dimensional in her last lead role as the love interest in Mr Jones.
However, she gets a chance to shine in Kornél Mundruczó’s melodrama Pieces of a Woman, adapted from the play he cowrote with his wife Kata Wéber, and all of a sudden people are suggesting an Oscar-worthy performance. And she’s good in it.
This story of a young Boston couple (Martha played by Kirby and Sean played by Shia LaBeouf) whose relationship disintegrates after the death of their first child gives her a meaty and difficult role. Kirby rises to the challenge in this film with its themes of grief, addiction, bad relationships and troubled family bonds.
The tragic homebirth scene early in the film is virtuoso cinema. The three-hander involving Kirby and LaBeouf and later Molly Parker (Madeline’s Madeline) playing midwife Eva was shot in an impressive 23-minute single. It’s exhilarating and excruciatingly painful.
We’re now accustomed to spectacularly long takes in films such as Children of Men and Atonement and even feature-length takes in 1917 and Birdman. In contrast to these showy sequences, the birth scene in Pieces of a Woman is domestic, intimate and much more emotionally affecting. Technically, the scene is expertly blocked, the camera fluidly following the actors in the living room, bedroom, bathroom and hallway. It’s almost like a documentary as the camera is granted 360° freedom (the lighting design must have been extremely difficult).
But rather than the technical prowess, it’s the three actors who command our attention. Kirby’s performance is central. She expresses her character’s anxiety, terror, excruciating physical pain, helplessness, panic, excitement, joy and grief as the scene moves from the initial anticipation of birth to the desperate tragedy of the baby’s death. But while Kirby is the focus, the scene is equally dependent on the other two actors. LaBeouf’s character is the outsider, not actively involved in the birth and consequently a surrogate for the viewer, he depicts Sean’s tenderness and support and his panic and worry. And Parker, the midwife, pulls off a subtle balancing act; as a professional Eva tries to keep the couple calm, but the panic in her eyes when things begin to go wrong offer a tense contrast to the unwitting parents’ experience.
Despite such emotional intensity, the scene shies away from being too physically graphic; Kirby’s nudity is tastefully masked (when she moves into the bath, the camera respectfully remains in the living room) and oddly there is very little blood and viscera at the moment of birth. I suppose that avoids a sense of voyeurism so the audience can better focus on the emotional drama. But the camera is right in the actors’ faces, we get to know exactly what each of the three leads are feeling, and in this way it contrasts with the devastating miscarriage scene in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma where the maid Cleo lies on a distant table, unknowable.
After such an effective set-piece it was always going to be a challenge to maintain that intensity for the rest of the movie, and although it has some excellent scenes the film meanders towards the end. In the original play the birth scene filled the entire first half, but in the film it takes up less than a fifth of the run time making the second, longer part feel a bit aimless and bloated; I suspect it could have benefitted from some tighter plotting.
There are two narrative threads: the disintegration of the couple’s relationship as they each grieve privately, and the attempt at legal redress and compensation by trying to sue the midwife. The first is definitely the strongest, but it’s allowed to peter out long before the end. By contrast, the legal story feels undernourished and although the verdict hangs forensically on the precise order of events depicted in the opening scene, it feels oddly inconsequential rather than redemptive. It’s a little too pat, with an Oscar-baiting speech when Kirby’s character takes the stand.
Notwithstanding the last few scenes, the film is captivating on the whole. The contrast between inarticulate and primal Sean and the more refined yet self-restrained Martha is effective. Martha has an extensive middle-class family and is a professional office-worker (although her actual job is never made clear!), while Sean is a construction worker with seemingly no friends or family. But more significantly, Sean has an air of repressed volatility about him, and we learn he was previously an alcoholic.
On the surface they hardly seem made for each other and it’s implied that Martha’s family don’t entirely approve of Sean; Sean in turn feels diminished and patronised by their wealth and sophistication. However, the couple’s behaviour in the homebirth scene convince us there is (or was) a strong bond between them. It’s entirely believable as the pair grieve in their own separate ways, each in turn desperate not to hurt the other in their own despair, yet each badly failing.
There’s an array of impressive supporting characters including Iliza Shlesinger as Matha’s cousin, a lawyer who takes on the legal case, Sarah Snook as Martha’s sister and Benny Safdie (of Safdie brothers Uncut Gems fame) as her brother in law. Jimmy Fails of The Last Black Man in San Francisco also makes a brief appearance.
But of the supporting cast, it’s Ellen Burstyn who makes the strongest impression in a powerhouse role of Martha’s overbearing mother Elizabeth. Burstyn, of course, has a great track record of playing strong female characters including in Requiem of a Dream, The Tale, W., The Exorcist, and Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (btw Martin Scorsese was executive producer for Pieces of a Woman). She’s magnificent in this film, finding the right balance of supportive and manipulative, well meaning and tactless. Her character is a driving force for both the faltering of Martha’s relationship with Sean and the pursuit of legal redress, in contrast to the numb, grief-stricken aimlessness of both Martha and Sean themselves. But she’s also frail, clearly suffering the early stages of senility and, although it’s a subtle portrayal, it elicits our sympathies.
LaBeouf is a controversial figure in real life and it’s difficult to watch him play an abusive partner in Pieces of a Woman without being reminded of the recent accusations of sexual battery and assault by his former girlfriend FK Twigs. Netflix has understandably downplayed his role in its publicity for this film, but he gives a very good performance even if it does feel suspiciously too close to reality.
The direction is solid, and Mundruczó clearly draws on his theatre experience to make the most of dialogue-heavy, location bound dramatics. The sense of grief and despair is entirely believable, and it seems to have been inspired by the director/writer team’s real life experience of miscarriage. The film is on shakier ground, however, with some overlaboured metaphors – apples, building a bridge and scenes of icy winter recur and become a little too obvious and overused. The music by David Cronenberg regular Howard Shore is effective, with his usual piano-led, crystalline orchestrations contrasted with some surprisingly laid back jazz.
Pieces of a Woman is a very good film and Mundruczó directs his actors with real empathy and immediacy. Many of the scenes are powerful. Although in the end it fizzles out a little and the script could have used some tightening, it’s an effective film and worth watching. And I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Kirby (along with Burstyn) are recognised in the awards season.Follow @davefilmblog