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TIFF 2020 Review: Pieces of a Woman

Image Courtesy of TIFF

There is one thing that is indisputable after watching Pieces of a Woman – that this will certainly launch Vanessa Kirby into A-list territory.  An Academy Award nomination is a guarantee, yes, even seven months out from the show.  A captivating look at the different ways we deal with emotional pain, Pieces of a Woman offers an intimate portrait of a type of grief often overlooked.

Martha (Kirby) and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are excitedly awaiting the arrival of their baby daughter.  Martha’s co-workers throw her a party on her last day before her maternity leave, the couple get a new car, with the help of Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), they finish setting up the nursery complete with a hanging portrait of their baby’s ultrasound.  They are ready, and prepared.  They have a plan.  But when Martha goes into labour, their midwife is unable to attend their home birth, instead sending a replacement (Molly Parker) to deliver the child, throwing their plan off course. After a harrowing delivery, the baby is unfortunately lost, plunging this couple into despair and grief.

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The couple deal with their grief very differently.  Martha needs to allow her body time to adjust and heal feels guilty and blames herself while trying to erase any visual cues of the baby.  Conversely, Sean wants all of his memories, however brief, and aims his blame outward, even consulting a lawyer (Succession standout Sarah Snook) to bring a case against the midwife.  With her mother Elizabeth offering tempered advice, an even different form of pain, Martha finds herself isolated and trying desperately to find herself again.

The beginning of Pieces of a Woman is remarkable filmmaking.  After an initial introduction to our main players, director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) films Martha’s home birth in an exceedingly well choreographed one-shot that is over twenty minutes long.  The ebbs and flows of Martha’s contractions bring changes to the pace, at times frenzied, at times tender.  Pieces can never quite be better cinematically than this initial half hour suggests, but there are other times the director utilizes a shorter single take technique to good effect.

The cast is what helps to buoy this film despite its heavy premise, with Vanessa Kirby at its core.  She delivers a heartbreaking, fearless yet composed performance, her face and body language showing (and at times even hiding) the physical and emotional toll her daughter’s loss has taken.  Shia LaBeouf is a well cast counterpart but is less surprising here, though he makes the initially empathetic Sean at one point so horrible that it made me clench my fists with anger.  Both actors hold their own against the legendary Ellen Burstyn who at 87 years young is a formidable scene partner, and is excellent here.

Working from a script from writer Kata Wéber, director Mundruczó has managed an impressive English language debut.  Pieces of a Woman is not perfect (for instance the passing time and Martha’s healing journey is demonstrated by the too on-the-nose building of a literal bridge) but it is beautiful.  The last half loses some emotional intensity, but in the end we are left with a personal and considerate examination of grief, the cost of blame, and also the power of forgiveness.

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