Synopsis – 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.
My Take – Going into this film, I knew it was going to be quite a challenging experience for me, as ever since I became a father to a beautiful daughter three years ago, the sudden appearance of the predominant parental feelings have turned me oversensitive towards anything related grief, particularly when it is do with one’s child. As it is impossible to fathom the pain of mourning someone that never truly had a chance to live.
As expected, this latest Netflix release, from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, written by his partner Kata Wéber and loosely based on their own real-life experience, is a delicate, devastating account of an all-too-common but little-spoken-about sort of grief. Beginning with an absolutely gut-wrenching 30 minutes that sets the rest of the film in motion.
The opening of the film made me smile and it felt sweet, but the quick descent into heartbreak just left me speechless. Yes, there are problems with the film, the rest of the film can’t match that birth sequence for tension, and some may find the film’s relentless misery a bit too much to handle, however, it is an experience that utilizes film-making and performances in the best ways possible, especially Vanessa Kirby, whose magnetism often scoops the film from the sloughs of its own making.
In retrospect, this film isn’t for anyone who is looking to genuinely enjoy a film, but rather it asks you to be patient and really dive into the emotional core, which I ended up finding incredibly powerful overall, even though the subject matter is emotionally exhausting.
The story follows Martha Weiss (Vannessa Kirby) and Sean Parker (Shia LaBeouf), a happy suburban couple from Boston, Massachusetts who are excitedly expecting a child. They’ve decorated the nursery, and even purchased a new car with the help of Martha’s wealthy mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). Though tensions niggle between the couple as Sean is a recovering addict working an intense job in bridge construction, and Martha is a career woman who is distant in a way that makes her appear cold, but the baby is much wanted, and the couple are excited about her arrival.
Opting for a home birth, trouble begins when the couple’s regular midwife isn’t able to attend when Martha goes into labor, instead sending in an experience replacement, Eve (Molly Parker), in her place. While the grueling labor seems to be ending on a happy note, tragedy suddenly strikes leaving both Martha and Sean to struggle with their loss, grief and inner demons.
Martha’s labor is the film’s centerpiece; a bravura 27-minute singular take ordeal further uplifted by an unforgettably physical performance from Kirby. But the rest of the film deals with the aftermath of this awful, life-changing moment, and the criminal negligence court case against Eve that Martha’s family instigate. No one knows how to acknowledge Martha and Sean’s loss, and the couple themselves struggle to grieve, while the fallout devastates everyone in their immediate family. The apartment Martha and Sean share becomes a war zone; Elizabeth starts to unravel, heartbroken by her daughter’s loss.
The graphic nature of how certain things are displayed almost had me in tears alone. This is a film that doesn’t hold back. It tells you the honest truth about situations like this and I found that very powerful. Losing a child is the kind of tragedy that can tear apart a relationship and change, if not destroy, a person. Martha becomes isolated as she tries to make sense of something where logic doesn’t apply. Sean is unable to connect with her, but falls into her mother’s camp of seeking to avenge the pain, and are determined to make the midwife pay through jail time.
Here, director Kornél Mundruczó, and writer Kata Wéber doesn’t try to define the characters in moral terms, as good or bad, or right or wrong. It just lets them exist in their imperfection and complexity. It is usually shown that tragedies generally befall noble people, and their journey becomes about their reclaiming their nobility. But here, the characters are, to varying degrees, a mess, and tragedy doesn’t ennoble them, it makes them messier.
Yes, because nothing can top the first half-hour for drama and artistry, the film inevitably loses some intensity for its remaining running time, but that’s acceptable. There’s a place for this kind of a film, which explores the aftermath of a life-changing event, and is most rewarding when Martha is the emotional center of gravity. Martha substantiates the perspective of a mother struggling to accept and endure an unimaginable loss in silence. Her withholding becomes an asset, her blank face the key battleground of emotions. The most heart-breaking moments play out through her despairing eyes.
But in contrast, the film is not as rewarding when it switches to Sean. It is even less rewarding when it diverts its attention to Eve’s trial, its tabloid-y theatrics and its sappy resolution. Also it is a little too on-the-nose with its metaphors. For example, Sean is a construction worker who builds bridges, but he can’t bridge the widening gulf between him and his wife. Apples and seeds feature heavily to signify Martha’s rebirth.
Both Mundruczó and Wéber bring a sense of authenticity and truthfulness to the process of childbirth in the prologue, but they struggle to replicate it in their depiction of a mother trying to free herself from grief. Far too often, they get distracted by peripheral drama.
On the technical front, the home birth sequence of the film is brilliantly executed by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb and the sparse score by master composer Howard Shore convincingly capture the moods of the characters as it floats when the mood is positive and becomes sharper as the mood changes.
Without a doubt the film contains Vanessa Kirby‘s best performance till date. From her first moments on-screen to where she ends up by the end, her range here was outstanding. What’s fascinating about Kirby here is that even when she appears to be doing nothing, she’s worth watching. Here, she pulls off the fragility and simmering hostility of Martha incredibly well.
Though, Shia LaBeouf has found himself again as the face of controversy, there is no denying of the fantastic and raw performance he puts in here. Ellen Burstyn is also brilliant as Eve who manages to turn what could have been a domineering person into something likable. In supporting roles, Molly Parker, Iliza Schlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook and Jimmie Falls are also effective. On the whole, ‘Pieces of a Woman’ is a moving heart-wrenching experience that works as a brutal drama and a showcase of Vanessa Kirby‘s acting talent.
Directed – Kornél Mundruczó
Rated – R
Run Time – 126 minutes