IMDb Link: Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Writer: Kata Wéber
Stars: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn
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.
Earlier in the year, I was tasked in my university class to write a 30-page screenplay. Given complete freedom as to what that screenplay could be about, I chose to focus on a storyline that has recently been in the news with celebrities such as Meghan Markle and Chrissy Teigan being open about their experiences and the need for this conversation to be had more often. I chose the tough subject matter of writing a screenplay about high-risk pregnancy and the struggle that mothers go through during this time, with the risk of a miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of a mother during labour. I only bring this up because of the subject matter of this film, and my viewing experience watching this film after having spent three months researching and writing about the topic myself.
What I appreciated most about the approach of Pieces of a Woman was the heavy focus on the leading character, Martha (played by Kirby), and her feelings throughout the film. This is not just a film about how miscarriages can happen and the effect it has physically on the mother-to-be, but how people around her act within that situation. Important people in her life, most notably her mother and her husband, start to make decisions that seem right and helpful to her, but at the end of the day, it is up to the mother to decide how to grieve. I love that the movie nails this message from the start and throughout, making this the key point of the story.
This is a raw and honest story, and it is not just the writing and narrative itself that keeps this feeling raw. Many other people have already commented on this, but the film opens with a 25-minute one-take sequence of the birth of the child. What is the most impressive thing about this one-take sequence is how natural it feels. It does not come off as ochoreographed or over-rehearsed as many other famous one-take shots do. It sucks you straight into the story as you are watching this birth happen, unafraid to show the baby bump and the pain coming from Kirby. This is a sequence that does not feel 25-minutes long, going by incredibly fast and with so many emotional beats placed within it. Quite simply, it is one of the best sequences in film in a very, very long time.
This is a year of incredible performances, and yet Vanessa Kirby gives my favourite performance I have seen this awards season. Not only does she help elevate that opening sequence and sell the labour pains, but she has to balance her emotions throughout the entire film. She is a woman that is trying to be strong during this tough time, and trying not to get frustrated at everyone around her, yet has these breaking moments that feel natural and show off her range. I also have to mention Ellen Burstyn, who gives a wonderful performance as Martha’s mother, Elizabeth. She is authentic in her performance, but it is when she has her monologue and more dramatic roles that she makes a real impact in the film and it is hard to forget her performance.
After the stunning first act, the film does drop in quality just a bit in the middle section. A large portion of that has to do with the writing of Martha’s partner, Sean (played by Shia LaBeouf). I was left confused by the direction that the screenplay took with Sean and his behaviour with Martha. If this was about exploring how he handles the miscarriage, then it needed to be explored deeper. Instead, he comes off awfully and his arc feels completely rushed to just push Martha’s perspective forward.
I am not sure if this is a film that needs to be over two-hours long, considering how emotional and concise the main plot of the story is. There are sub-plots involving other members of the family that do not hit as emotionally as they should, and it does hinder the pacing in the second act of the film. The first and third acts are incredibly tight and well done because of the focus on the main story and the emotional punches it continually throws at the audience. I could have done with the editing being tighter in connecting those two acts in a more concise manner and nailing that emotion throughout.
To conclude, this is a gut-punch of a film packed with real emotion. It is an incredibly tough watch, and the first 30-minutes makes that incredibly clear. If you can get through it, it is incredibly rewarding as this film is packed with some of the best performances, scenes and stories of the year. I will always applaud filmmakers who take a bold risk with their storytelling and the message that they convey, and director Kornél Mundruczó has gone and done it here.
Pieces of a Woman is available to watch on Netflix on January 7th 2021.