Pieces of a Woman (2020). Film review of the drama starring Vanessa Kirby

Vanessa Kirby in the movie Pieces of a Woman


image four star rating very good lots to enjoy

Film review by Jason Day of Pieces of a Woman, the 2020 drama about the fallout following a tragic home birth. Starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LeBeouf, Ellen Burstyn and directed by Kornél Mundruczó.

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Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shi LeBeouf) are expecting a baby; even with the dragon-like presence of his rich mother-in-law Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) whom he knows detests him, Sean and Martha are happy.

They have opted for a home birth but when Martha goes into labour, a midwife other than the one she has been expecting turns up. Almost unfathomably, the birth goes tragically wrong and the child, a daughter, dies shortly afterwards.

We follow the couple through months of agonising and the slow disintegration of their relationship, egged on by Elizabeth who pushes them into pursing a legal action against the midwife.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

You’re a cheap-ass liar!

Sean (Shia LeBeouf) confronts Martha (Vanessa Kirby) after the death of their newborn daughter.

For those of you who have children, the uncomfortable Pieces of a Woman might be a hard slog. Not because it is bad – far from it – but it deals with emotive issues in a frank and raw manner.

First off, you need to get through the birth sequence. Although not the longest single sequence in cinema, at 24 minutes it is long enough to put the viewer through the ringer.

Writer Kata Weber and director Kornél Mundruczó let you to take in the grueling nature of birth. Martha experiences acid reflux and continually belches, apologising profusely. She swears continually, is sometimes spaced out, experiences incomprehension at the situation, understandably feels pain and discomfort, her veins pop out, she screams and, of course, is absolutely exhausted throughout.

I feel tired just typing that out.

In contrast Sean, as the soon-to-be daddy is more…nonplussed, silent, white-eyed with fright. Like a redundant and coiled spring, he is quick to leap into action whenever a relatively lower priority task needs to be actioned (running a bath or selecting appropriate music).

No matter how much a father is expected to be present during the birth of his children, now matter how much he gets in the way or tries to get out of it, his troubles don’t count for shit compared to the mothers.

Mundruczó’s film is interesting then by focusing in an almost equitable way on both parents’ emotional and practical responses following a birth tragedy.

Admittedly I haven’t seen all of his movies, but LeBeouf is not an actor I’ve always warmed to. Part of my problem might be media reports of his private life and activities (going to the theatre high and causing an annoyance; stories of him being abusive toward girlfriends), he’s either vague and unappealing in movies (Nymphomaniac, 2013), serves little purpose (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008) or appears in utter crud (Transformers. I can’t be bothered to research the dates of their release).

But here, he is utterly credible as a working class man going through a solitary bereavement as his partner drifts away. When he begs her not to go through with the civil suit her mother wants, he rocks back and forth, banging himself against a wall like a distressed, caged animal at a zoo.

Sean does things that aren’t excusable but understandable for a man in his situation who, like Martha, has become almost completely disconnected from feeling. He tries to force Kirby to have sex with him again, trying to fuck-start their relationship. When this fails, he storms out into and howls uncontrollably into the night.

He has sex and takes drugs with their lawyer, who at least offers him the sensation of touch.

Based on this film and how impressive he is, I’m happy to revisit his oeuvre. But not Transformers!

The production design symbolises their dying love. In a few shots of their kitchen (traditionally, of course, viewed as the heart of the home) we see the dying plants, the paint chipped off a lamp, the general unkempt look of the place. Then, we switch to a recurring shot of ice floating out to sea on the river across which Sean is supervising the building of a bridge. As if we need any further visual representation of the spanning of emotional divides.

The ice, of course, can be seen as the pieces of this woman, Martha. After being frozen by trauma, time and the warmth of reconnecting with herself allows her to let go.

Kirby has been impressing with her cinematic performances but is mostly known to audiences as Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown, is a revelation here and her performance has secured her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Martha is not an ‘easy’ character, either to play or for an audience to identify with. For most of the film, she is totally closed down and seems – and I feel uneasy even typing this – somewhat obtuse.

Thinking about her now, days after seeing the movie, I get her indifference to people and life. She smiles at a little girl in a shop, a girl whom her dead daughter may have grown up to become. A girl who looks at her with an unemotional expression, but Martha still involuntarily lactates and quickly leaves.

Taking the train on another day, Martha is surrounded by children and their parents and hardly knows where to look. As LeBeouf completely convinces as the father half of this story, so does she as the mother for whom no amount of grief counselling will ever completely salve the trauma of her birth experience.

Cast & credits

Director: Kornél Mundruczó. 2hr 6mins/126mins. BRON Studios/Creative Wealth Media Finance/Little Lamb/Proton Cinema. (15).

Producers: Ashley Levinson, Aaron Weber, Kevin Turen.
Writer: Kata Wéber.
Camera: Benjamin Loeb.
Music: Howard Shore.
Sets: Sylvain Lemaitre.

Vanessa Kirby, Shia LeBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, Steven McCarthy, Tyrone Benskin, Frank Schropion, Harry Standjofski, Domenic Di Rosa.


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