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Film Review: ‘Pieces of a Woman’ is an Acting Clinic

PIECES OF A WOMAN: Vanessa Kirby as Martha
PIECES OF A WOMAN: (L to R) Vanessa Kirby as Martha, Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth

For being a film with a lot to like and offer, Pieces of a Woman is a surprisingly hard one to quantify. On the one hand, it’s brilliantly performed. On the other, it deals with subject matter and a tragic event that may be too much for some to handle. That it’s done in an almost docudrama-like fashion only makes it harder. So, while the film is high-quality, it’s the sort of work that won’t be for many. Despite that, Netflix saw something in the movie while scouting the festival circuit. Now, it’s another one of their Oscar hopefuls, aiming to capture the hearts, as well as bring out the tears, in many a voter.

Pieces of a Woman has, first and foremost, some of the year’s best acting, bar none. That much is obvious almost immediately to anyone watching. The cast inhabit realistic characters and give them damaged, yet vibrant, life. Even when they behave in ways you wouldn’t imagine behaving, you understand why. That’s an accomplishment on the part of the cast, since after a harrowing beginning, the story itself meanders more than you’d like. Still, the acting is 100% beyond reproach.

Netflix

Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are a couple about to welcome their first child. Choosing a home birth, they first experience a disruption when their scheduled midwife isn’t available, leading to Eva (Molly Parker) assisting instead. The labor seems normal at first, though complications soon arise. Eva appears to get Martha through it, introducing her and Sean to their newborn baby. Unfortunately, a parent’s worst fear is about to come true.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, life comes apart for everyone. As the couple themselves fracture and break down in various ways, Martha also faces off with her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who is desperate to see Eva go to prison. Sean and Martha, as well as Elizabeth, grieve in very different ways, with the fate of Eva potentially hanging in the balance. Regardless, life for all involved will never be the same.

Netflix

Ellen Burstyn, Vanessa Kirby, and Shia LaBeouf are at the tops of their respective games here. LaBeouf’s character is shortchanged by the end, but he depicts grief in a moving manner. Burstyn, and especially Kirby, however, give an absolute masterclass in acting. Burstyn is a tough matriarch with a hidden pain that she barely lets out. Even after all these years, she can still surprise. Then, there’s Kirby, who will blow you away in the first act, alone. Later, even when the plot doesn’t keep things as interesting, she’s still utterly captivating. Watching her try to find her way is equally heartbreaking and hypnotic. Supporting players like Molly Parker, Benny Safdie, Iliza Shlesinger, Sarah Snook, and more fill things out nicely. At the same time, the film lives and dies with Burstyn and Kirby. Their relationship proves to be what the movie is truly about.

Director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber pull no punches here. Mundruczó uses Howard Shore‘s score and Benjamin Loeb‘s intimate cinematography to up the drama to almost upsetting levels. The opening sequence, especially, is nearly perfect, with Loeb’s camera showing you just enough. Unfortunately, everything after that just can’t measure up. Wéber’s screenplay starts to traffic in material we’ve seen before. It’s still well realized, but somewhat ordinary, after an extraordinary beginning.

Awards-wise, Pieces of a Woman should get Ellen Burstyn another Oscar nomination and Vanessa Kirby her first citation. Burstyn in Best Supporting Actress and Kirby in Best Actress seem like easy grabs for Netflix, with both potential Academy Award winners, too. It all just depends on if the material is too tough for voters or not. We shall see.

Pieces of a Woman will put you through the paces. Whether you’re up for that or not, well, that’s your call. Taken just as a film, this is affecting and impactful, making it easy to recommend. As a movie you just might come across on Netflix? It may be a tough sell. That being said, it’s well worth it.

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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