Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Pieces of a Woman” (2020)

Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are both eagerly expecting a baby and when the expectant mother goes into labour, midwife Eva (Molly Parker) is called to deliver the baby, the couple having opted for a home birth, but immediately after the baby is born, the worst happens and the child doesn’t survive. Throughout the course of the year, the horrible event starts to have an understandably negative impact on the couple, as well as on their whole family, and as Martha’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) pushes her daughter to sue the midwife, Martha continues to struggle to adjust to life after the event and is plagued by much grief and uncertainty.

Along with several others, I watched this film as the inaugural feature in the Friday Fake Cinema Club, a new event set up by Caz over at Let’s Go To The Movies wherein we all sit down to watch a brand new release at the same time, and it marks my first 2021 film release of the year (going by UK release date) as well as my first film review of the year – exciting!

Pieces of a Woman has been watched and admired by so many people already, with the majority especially singing the praises of Vanessa Kirby as well as the film’s standout opening sequence, wherein we spend 25 or so uninterrupted minutes with our two/three main characters as labour begins and it all culminates in a particularly devastating event, and, starting off this review by looking at this much talked about sequence, this opening is indeed the best part of the film as the single, unbroken take really is effective and purposeful; it was surely the smart choice to have it all as one shot as it goes a long way to making us feel as though we’re really there and it also gets us to feel particularly close to the characters, constantly focusing on them for the duration and really allowing us to witness all the emotions involved, be they subtle or explicit. It truly is an important, jarring, and brilliantly crafted and performed opening sequence that will immediately suck the viewer right in – special praise surely goes to Vanessa Kirby for going through such an ordeal and making it look so genuine – and it’s especially affecting when the title card finally makes an appearance. At around thirty minutes into the picture.

From then on, the film doesn’t quite live up to the high standards set by the opening and although the film clearly has something to say about the (ripple) effect that such a horrid occurrence can have on a relationship, a family, and on the wider community, examining how people cope with grief and specifically following Kirby’s Martha as she has to somehow live and cope with what has happened, the middle section of the movie is considerably more slowly paced than what came before and I don’t believe that the resulting plot is as interesting nor as emotional as it could have been, although it does culminate in a rousing scene which is set within a courtroom (and the preceding monologue given by Ellen Burstyn is quite brilliant) as well as a moment where Martha finally learns to “let go” and it’s apparent that the film is bookended by two excellent sequences (although it should have cut out the final scene that involves an apple tree – that shot of the water would’ve made for a perfect closing) but that the middle of the film isn’t particularly special and could’ve been better.

And then of course, there’s Vanessa Kirby, who already seems to be generating massive Oscar buzz for her central performance in this film, and while I don’t think that her performance is quiiiiite as sensational as most are making it out to be, it cannot be denied that she does indeed give a really excellent performance and her presence proves to be one of the film’s biggest assets; she really does immerse herself in the part, appearing perfectly genuine and natural and never appearing to be “trying too hard”, and she manages to express all of the necessary emotions with little to no dialogue and showing us a character who, though initially perfectly likeable and affable, has retreated into herself following her horrible ordeal, appearing ever so slightly cold and standoffish, and later explicitly expressing her emotions when it all becomes too much for her. Kirby has already impressed with her supporting roles in Hobbs and Shaw and Mission: Impossible – Fallout and in this leading role, she proves herself to be a formidable presence that all the film world will (quite rightly) take notice of come Oscar season.

In other roles, Shia LaBeouf provides strong support as Martha’s partner Sean and he too retreats into himself somewhat, though he also visibly cries a couple of times, giving an overall laudable supporting performance, Molly Parker appears at the beginning and end of the film and puts in a committed performance, getting us to question whether she really did try her best or whether she’s actually culpable for what transpired, and Ellen Burstyn also greatly impresses as Martha’s Emily Gilmore-type mother, giving us a character who is stern and demanding, and she delivers a particularly stirring monologue towards the end that may prove to be a “For Your Consideration” clip for the Oscar board. Also, we have Benny Safdie, Iliza Shlesinger and Sarah Snook and they all give respectable supporting performances.

On a technical level, the film succeeds because it is directed well, Kornél Mundruczó having created an appropriately dark and sombre atmosphere while also making sure to include several different shots that tell us what it going on with little to no dialogue, it all looks great, and music is used effectively – sometimes making use of a sorrowful piano but also using jazz very well during certain sequences.

Although the middle section of the feature doesn’t reach the high standard set by the memorable, one-shot opening sequence, Pieces of a Woman is nonetheless strengthened by a meaningful and affecting story, pleasing visuals and direction, and an excellent central performance from Vanessa Kirby.

★ ★ ★ ★

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