In light of the recent chaos, you would be forgiven for letting the fact we are heading into Awards season slip your mind. This is the time of year when cinema is traditionally bombarded with powerful biopics, heart-breaking dramas and quirky indies, all vying for the elusive gold statuettes of the Academy.
Oscar hopefuls may be confined to VOD and streaming services this year, but in no way does that detract from the quality of filmmaking on offer. One strong contender for this year’s awards is Pieces of a Woman, a devastatingly realistic drama about a mother recovering from the loss of her child.
Vanessa Kirby stars as Martha Weiss, a woman who tragically loses her baby after a homebirth goes inexplicably wrong. Kirby is on phenomenal form here and her performance is nothing short of a triumph. Shia LaBeouf plays her husband, Sean, a construction worker trying to contain his excitement over the imminent birth of his daughter. While LaBeouf is on good form here as the grieving father struggling to maintain his sobriety, this is truly Kirby’s film and little can detract from her transcendent performance.
We open on a handful of scenes showing the couple preparing for their baby’s incoming arrival, all of which work effectively to emphasise the dread of what is to come. Martha enjoys an office baby shower before she packs up her things and heads home on maternity leave. Meanwhile Sean hurries up work on a new bridge, shouting to a colleague on his way out that the bridge needs to be finished because he promised his daughter ‘would be the first one to walk on it’.
The couple then meet at a car dealership where Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (played wonderfully by Ellen Burstyn) buys the couple a new family-sized car, riling Sean up in the process, whose blue-collar background is a source of tension between him and the wealthy, middle-class Elizabeth.
Less than ten minutes in and Martha’s labour is firmly underway. It is in this scene that Pieces of a Woman is at its most masterful. In the astoundingly impressive thirty-minute take, director Kornél Mundruczó takes us through the roller coaster of Martha’s labour, beginning with early contractions in the kitchen and culminating with the pain-staking realisation that the baby is in distress and hospital treatment is desperately needed.
Initially, all seems well and the couple are joined by Eve (Molly Parker), a pleasant if jittery midwife who is stepping in for their original midwife, caught up at another labour. As the labour progresses, however, Parker’s facial expressions reveal a latent anxiety that signals something is not quite right. When the flustered midwife finally makes the call to go to hospital, it is too late and the tragedy of the situation feels inevitable.
It is a gruelling scene that is made all the more intense by the unrelenting camera work and Kirby’s unwaveringly dedicated performance. In the final tense moments, as the ambulance arrives and the title card is revealed, Martha’s pain is overwhelming.
After the staggeringly impressive opening sequence, the rest of the film feels comparatively slow. On one hand, this works well to reflect Martha’s gradual detachment from her husband and family as her grief isolates and consumes her. One cannot help but feel, however, that the film is lacking in momentum in the second act, as though unable to reach quite the same quality of filmmaking as that established in the beginning.
Having said that, the truth remains that Kirby and Burstyn’s devotion to the material is enough to propel the film towards a dramatic courtroom climax, where Martha finally comes face to face with Eve as the latter stands trial for manslaughter and negligence.
Kata Webér’s script, which was inspired by her own personal experience, is full of grounded moments that highlight the brutal, intimate realities of losing a child. Moments where the family must meet to decide the font on a tombstone, coupled with scenes of Martha putting frozen peas on her swollen postpartum breasts draw attention to the painful aftermath and inescapable reminders of child loss.
Pieces of a Woman is admittedly not an easy watch. It is, however, an impressive, heart-wrenching examination of grief that features a truly masterful performance from Vanessa Kirby and an opening sequence that will undoubtedly be studied on film courses for years to come.
Pieces of a Woman is out now on Netflix.