Kornél Mundruczó’s new movie “Pieces of a Woman”, which was released on Netflix yesterday, starts so strongly that what follows after that point looks rather underwhelming in comparison. Fortunately, the movie is still carried well by a remarkable performance at its center, and that is more enough for me to overlook its several glaring weak aspects.
During the long prologue part preceding the eventual appearance of the title of the movie on the screen, the movie quickly establishes the ongoing important circumstance of Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby), a young company executive who has lived along with a construction worker named Sean Carson (Shia LaBeouf) for several years in Boston, Massachusetts. Because Martha will soon give birth to their daughter, Sean has been quite excited as shown from the very first shot of the film, and Martha surely expects a lot as getting much emotional support from many people around her including her family.
However, they are not exactly ready when the time finally comes to them during one evening. Once Martha suddenly feels the first sign of what she will have to endure for a while, she and Sean hurriedly call their hired midwife supposed to help them during her domestic delivery of their baby, but, alas, their midwife happens to be unavailable due to some other unexpected childbirth, so a substitute midwife comes to their house instead. Although they cannot wholly trust this substitute midwife, they have no choice at all for now, and the substitute wife promptly embarks on handling the situation as Martha is about to go through the most painful part of her ongoing biological process.
During this intense scene, Mundruczó and his cinematographer Benjamin Loeb steadily follow and observe these three main characters’ situation without interruption, and the result is quite impressive to say the least. As Loeb’s camera fluidly moves along with these three main characters without feeling intrusive at all, we become more emotionally involved in what is happening to Martha, and then we are all shocked as the circumstance eventually ends with a devastating outcome which is going to change not only Martha’s life but also two other persons’ life in one way or another.
Some time later, Marth looks fairly fine on the surface, but it goes without saying that her mind is still struggling with her loss and the following grief and devastation. Although the substitute midwife was subsequently put on a trial as being charged for malpractice and several other criminal offences, she does not particularly want to get involved with the trial, and she is even willing to donate her dead daughter as a specimen for medical school.
Due to her rather detached attitude, Martha clashes a lot with not only Sean but also her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). While also going through his own grief and depression, Sean clings to a few memories of their daughter in contrast to Martha, and that certainly makes him and Martha more estranged from each other. In case of Elizabeth, she strongly believes that Martha must be more honest about whatever she has been trying to ignore and suppress since that incident, but she only comes to annoy her daughter more than before.
Although it calmly and sensitively depicts its heroine’s difficult and painful emotional journey along the plot, the screenplay by Kata Wéber, which was incidentally inspired by her own experience on losing her child with Mundruczó, is sometimes a little too heavy-handed at times. While a certain construction site involved with Sean feels blatantly symbolic as appearing more than once throughout the film, the eventual deterioration of Sean and Martha’s relationship is contrived due to deficient character development, and several notable supporting characters in the film including the ones played by Jimmie Fails (Remember “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019)?) and Benny Safdie, who recently directed “Uncut Gems” (2019) along with his older brother Joshua Safdie, mostly remained underdeveloped on the whole.
Nevertheless, the movie is still held together well together by the terrific performance from Vanessa Kirby, who deservedly won the Best Actress award when the movie was shown at the Venice International Film Festival in last year. While she is simply astounding in the palpable depiction of her character’s emotionally intense state during that extended scene in the opening part of the film, Kirby is also quite captivating as ably conveying to us a devastated state of mind behind her character’s frigid façade during the rest of the film, and that is why a certain key scene is fairly effective despite feeling theatrical at times.
Although the other characters in the film besides Martha are relatively superficial, several other main cast members surrounding Kirby fill their respective spots as much as demanded, though not all of them are as good as required. Even if you can overlook his latest scandal, Shia LaBeouf is unfortunately the weakest link in the film, and that aspect is apparent whenever he is supposed to be a solid counterpart to Kirby. While Molly Parker, Iliza Shlesinger, and Sarah Snook are sadly under-utilized due to their mostly thankless roles, Ellen Burstyn makes the best of her certain key scene with Kirby, and I will not be surprised if she gets Oscar-nominated along with Kirby a few months later.
Although it is not wholly satisfying, “Pieces of a Woman” is relatively more engaging compared to Mundruczó’s previous misfire “Jupiter’s Moon” (2017), and I recommend it mainly for Kirby’s stellar performance. Since her Emmy-nominated supporting turn in the first and second season of Netflix TV drama series “The Crown”, she has drawn more attention from us as appearing in a number of notable films including “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018), and I hope her acclaimed performance in “Pieces of a Woman” will lead her to more good things in her advancing acting career.