Released: 7th January
Seen: 7th January
Some topics are difficult to work into a movie, not because of taste or anything but because they are so loaded and intense that unless you nail every element of that topic your entire film could suffer because of it. Pieces of a Woman tackles possibly one of the heaviest topics, the death of a child, and for the most part, it nails it but some parts aren’t exactly the best.
Pieces of a Woman begins in tragedy with Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby), a heavily pregnant first-time mother, and her partner Sean Carson (Shia LaBeouf). Like a lot of couples, they have elected to have a home birth with a midwife. The midwife they planned to use for this service doesn’t make it but instead sends Eve Woodward (Molly Parker), a slightly overworked but otherwise reliable midwife.
Their home pregnancy seems to be going over well, the baby is born and seems fine at first… and then the baby’s crying stops, and she turns blue. In the aftermath of the babies passing, Martha has to contend with not only handling how her newborn’s remains will be handled but her overbearingly protective mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) and the slow deterioration of Martha’s relationship with her partner. All this while dealing with the court case against the midwife that she believes caused her child’s death.
From the opening scene, Pieces of a Woman is incredible. It sets the characters up beautifully and the birthing scene is one of the most realistic and emotional I’ve ever seen. It’s done in a powerful and well-handled long take from the moment the midwife turns up until the second the baby is dead. It’s intense, there’s no music, every actor is at their best and you feel every second like it’s an hour. It’s a glorious piece of film, punctuated by the title card at the half an hour mark which just shows the amount of care that went into every element of this intense setup… and then we don’t see the midwife for another hour and everyone other than Vanessa Kirby stops trying.
I’m going to be a little blunt and point out that part of my problem with Pieces of a Woman is that, after the abuse allegations by FKA Twigs against Shia, I can’t look at his face without feeling pure contempt for him. I get the theory of separating the art from the artist. It’s a theory that works well for 17th-century painters who probably said some heinous shit about women and minorities but who had the common decency to die hundreds of years ago. The theory doesn’t work that well for actors living and working right now who use the stature they gain from their art to protect them from the evil things they do. Any scene with Shia, especially the ones where he’s abusive, is just hard to watch due to the reality of what he did… and also just because he’s not that good in this film, choosing to play many scenes without a single drop of emotion.
Fortunately for Shia, he’s sharing Pieces of a Woman with Vanessa Kirby who owns every single second of the screen and delivers a fascinating performance of a woman trying to keep it together while dealing with severe loss. She’s not one note, she’s holding everything in because her character needs to do that to make it through the day and when she finally unleashes all her anger over the misspelling of her child’s name it’s devastating. She’s insanely good, managing to go toe to toe with a legend like Ellen Burstyn and keep up with her almost effortlessly.
The structure of Pieces of a Woman also leaves a little bit to be desired, that hour-long gap between the opening scene and the court case involving the midwife is a bit of a slog to get through and you almost wonder if they forgot about the main issue that the opening of the film set up. Not only that but when they do bring back the midwife for the courtroom scene, it lasts about ten minutes and even that’s broken up with a scene in a photoshop. It’s like this movie about a family taking a midwife to court suddenly got interrupted by a less interesting Marriage Story sequel, complete with some serious events that have no real resolution.
That’s possibly the biggest hurdle, the lack of any real resolve. I can’t think of a single plotline in Pieces of a Woman that ends in a way that’s narratively satisfying, certainly not in a great dramatic fashion. Hell if we didn’t have the great performances by Vanessa and Ellen you could be mistaken for not noticing that there’s anything dramatic happening. Sure, it’s hard to top the genuinely well done dramatic moment of a baby dying. That’s one of the most intense things you can put in a film and you made it effective… but you kind of need to have other moments that the audience can truly latch onto.
The reason that Pieces of a Woman works is because of the women in the cast, they manage to be so captivating and engaging that you can push through the plot that kind of forgets the inciting incident until they need to wrap things up. They are what elevates this material to new heights, imagine what could’ve happened if maybe they’d had more courtroom scenes or moments they could show off? Cos when these actresses get to show off just what they can do it’s some of the finest acting work you’ll ever see.
Pieces of a Woman manages to be good despite its flaws, good enough that it’s possible to push past a serious disdain for one of the leads to enjoy the work that everyone else is doing. It definitely feels like a film that Netflix is going to push heavily around awards season, and for a few people, I can certainly see why.