“Pieces of a Woman,” now steaming on Netflix, begins with happy, loving couple Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Shawn (Shia LaBeouf) on what should be one of the happiest days of their lives. In the scene, shot mostly in long takes, Martha is in labor, minutes away from giving birth to their daughter. With their midwife indisposed a replacement named Eva (Molly Parker), unfamiliar with their case, is sent in her place. By the end of the twenty five-minute pre-credit sequence tragedy has struck, and their lives are forever changed.
Director Kornél Mundruczó sets the bar very high in the opening moments of the film. It is riveting filmmaking, intimately showing Martha and Shawn’s anticipation, pain and anguish in real time. The bulk of the film deals with the aftermath as the couple are driven apart by grief and recrimination and it’s very strong, but cooler in tone than the opening.
It is interesting to note that “Piece of a Woman” was originally conceived as character sketches by Kata Wéber meant for the stage. You can feel the attention to detail that was lavished on each of the characters. They are richly drawn and carefully portrayed by the actors.
A trio of performances tell the story.
Kirby, best known as Princess Anne on “The Crown,” digs deep to create a portrait of a person devastated by the loss of her child; someone whose world stopped turning that day. As she looks for closure, there is an intensity that comes from her rage and sorrow manifesting themselves as heartbreak. It is layered, emotionally-draining, award worthy work.
LaBeouf plays Shawn as an attention hungry husband. A man trying to move on by forcing his attentions on Martha and when that doesn’t work, he looks elsewhere. LaBeouf is a bubbling cauldron of frustration, about to overflow.
As Martha’s mother, an imperious woman hell bent on assigning blame, Ellen Burstyn delivers a tour-de-force monologue about the way mothers raise their daughters that could be a short film all on its own.
“Pieces of a Woman” isn’t an easy watch. The performances are raw, real and uncomfortable that exhaust and exhilarate in equal measure.