Imagine you are sitting down to watch a movie and within minutes, you are marveling at the value of work that is being put forth by everyone involved. Great acting, solid writing, and impressive direction…particularly considering that we are watching a 20+ minute one shot take of an at-home birth.
Once the moment ends nearly a half hour into the film, you are left rather tense and on edge. There is no question that this sequence sent you on a roller coaster ride of emotions and you applaud the actors and director for pulling it off so well.
And yet…PIECES OF A WOMAN was mostly a failure.
It is hard to think of many other films that started off with such immense promise only to fall apart in such a horrific way so quickly.
So, let’s dive into this. What is PIECES OF A WOMAN about?
A young couple named Martha & Sean (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf) are on the verge of having their first child but tragedy strikes when Martha’s desire to have an at-home birth leads to their baby going into cardiac arrest and dying before the paramedics can arrive. We then follow the decline of Martha and Sean’s relationship while Martha’s elderly mother tries to intervene.
This is a very bare bones description of the film’s plot, but there is a reason that I don’t really want to go into it with more detail. It isn’t because I am trying to avoid spoiling anything for the sake of saving the experience for you should you choose to watch it…but rather that I feel the film tries to tackle a few different ideas over the course of an hour and a half without much emphasis or care. I found myself not really caring about any of these people, although I will say that this movie has one real saving grace: Vanessa Kirby.
To audiences here in the states, Vanessa Kirby is best known for playing Princess Margaret opposite Claire Foy’s Queen Eizabeth II on the first two seasons of THE CROWN. Here, she drops her British accent to play a young Boston wife and she does very well with the American accent. The big thing about Kirby is her performance is both restrained and volcanic. I have read some criticisms from people that they felt she was trying to hard to ACT and that the final results felt strained. While I can sort of see why some might think that, I thought she did a fantastic job…and this is especially true in the first half hour when we get to watch her go into labor and she navigates the pain and the nausea and the fear with such amazing conviction.
While Kirby’s Martha may not be someone I ended up loving per se as a character, I felt Kirby gave the role the dimensions it needed to be a pretty solid success. It’s just a shame that the script she has to work with is rather overwrought.
It is kind of a bizarre phenomenon really that the script, through the dialogue rather than the concept necessarily, is overwrought while also seeming to be so empty and docile.
The movie tries to tackle spousal abuse along with adultery and emotional instability while barely even giving us time to process any of it or making us care. The movie also utilizes time jumps to aid in this line of storytelling which at first makes sense but ends up becoming a crutch that seemed entirely unnecessary.
The other leads of the film are acting legend Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s mother Elizabeth and Molly Parker as Eva, the midwife who ends up finding herself in truly unfortunate situation that was out of her control.
It goes without saying that Burstyn is a truly remarkable actress and she does have a monologue in this movie that she sells very well…for the most part. Burstyn has said in interviews that she added some improvisations to her monologue in which she discusses being a child that was born during the Holocaust. I am not sure if she should be proud of the improvisations because the actual text of the scene itself comes off as incredibly brash and almost unnecessary. It is the stereotypical “Oscar clip” but it comes off as uneven thanks to the dialogue.
Molly Parker as Eva is actually quite refreshing in this film. While she only real appears during the birthing scene at the beginning, her presence feels so natural and real….it doesn’t seem like she is trying to act. She is simply living as the character and it is almost as strong a reaction that I had to Paul Raci’s work in SOUND OF METAL.
However, I can’t go any further without addressing the other major white elephant in the room: Shia LeBeouf. It is unfortunate to have to deal with watching Shia LeBeouf in this film in light of the recent allegations that he was abusive to his girlfriend, the singer FKA Twigs….especially considering that his character Sean is essentially an abusive and inconsiderate prick to Martha when she responds to the baby’s death by shutting down emotionally rather than constantly sobbing. I can’t blame the movie for this aspect but it was definitely an unfortunate addition.
As I wrap up, I do want to give an indirect credit to a reviewer on Letterboxd who described PIECES OF A WOMAN as “an American film trying to pose as a European art film”.
I would say this is apt….very, very apt.
Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo is certainly very talented…and he did a marvelous job on his 2014 film WHITE GOD. I also have to give him credit for on the stellar job he did for the opening scenes of this film despite how much the film suffers after. I do blame a lot of that on the script rather than him so I would say keep an eye on this guy and hope that he will have a better script to work with next time.
RATING (out of 5 stars):
P.S.: I boosted it up a little thanks to Kirby and the first half hour of the film.