Pieces of a Woman (3 stars)

Pieces of a Woman

Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn join forces for a gut-wrenching grief drama

Unimaginable loss is solidified on screen in this emotional rollercoaster of a drama which makes admirable efforts to capture such seismic events as the birth and death of a child, alongside difficult family and romantic dynamics. Acclaimed Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) and his screenwriter collaborator Kata Wéber make their English-language debut with a film based on their stage play that stars Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn.

Kirby (best known as Princess Margaret in the 2016/17 seasons of The Crown) won Best Actress at Venice 2020 for her shellshocked work as bereft new mother Martha, while there's a bravura moment for Burstyn too, playing Martha's own snobby mother Elizabeth. Set in Boston, the film begins with what is in many ways a remarkable birth scene. Although obviously abbreviated, this staple of the human experience is rarely recreated with anything resembling authenticity, so it really stands out.

The sequence is fluidly shot in a single take, with some fine work from LaBeouf as Martha's slightly bewildered blue-collar boyfriend Sean, who is disapproved of by her family, and the always-impressive Molly Parker as the midwife who is attending their homebirth at the last minute. It's an opening somewhat undermined by Kirby's not-always-convincing depiction of labour, which can be distracting.

The scene ends in such heart-stopping sadness that it casts a chill over the rest of the film, with grief, recriminations and the challenge of finding your way through explored in probing, illuminating fashion. In these later sequences Kirby is very plausible, communicating her pain in a glassy, faraway stare as Martha starts to behave in ways those around her struggle to comprehend.

If there are contrivances, they are at least touchingly rendered, there's grandeur and melancholy in Howard Shore's score, and the time it spends tackling taboos is to be applauded, with Pieces of a Woman observing that there is no normal way to react in the face of tragedy. Providing some catharsis is understandable, but the ending feels a tad pat for a film that has at least some audacity, but its compassion is beautiful and there's truth here too.

Available to watch in cinemas from Wed 30 Dec, and on Netflix from Thu 7 Jan.

Pieces of a Woman

  • 3 stars
  • 2020
  • US / Canada
  • 2h 8min
  • Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó
  • Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails, Ellen Burstyn