Wednesday 14 July 2021

Movie Review: Pieces Of A Woman (2020)

A drama about infant loss, Pieces Of A Woman traces a mother's attempt to pick up life's shattered fragments after unspeakable trauma.

In Boston, office worker Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) is expecting her first child with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a bridge construction foreman. They are planning a home birth, but when Martha goes into labour her midwife Barbara is occupied with another delivery. Back-up midwife Eva (Molly Parker) arrives to help. After a difficult labour the baby is born, but dies in Martha's arms within minutes.

The anguish of losing the child impacts the relationship between Martha and Sean, who cope in different ways. Martha's wealthy and strong-willed mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) exerts her influence and further drives a wedge between the couple. Meanwhile Eva faces criminal charges, with Martha's cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) prosecuting, but Martha appears uninterested in redress through the courts.

An adaptation of the play by Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber, who wrote from their experience after a miscarriage, Pieces Of A Woman visits places of disorienting emotional pain. Wéber wrote the screenplay and Mundruczó takes on directing duties, and together they create every parent's nightmare, a one-way trip to sudden, destroyed expectations.

The film salutes its stage origins without falling victim to them. In the indoor scenes Mundruczó deploys long, fluid takes with elegant camera motion. The birth sequence is a remarkable continuous shot lasting 24 minutes, starting with Martha's increasingly painful contractions and ending with the arrival of the ambulance, underlining the unidirectional nature of the childbirth experience. Once the process starts Martha and Sean have no exit ramps away from whatever outcome awaits.

The emotional focus is on Martha, and the stabs of agony she experiences every time she spots a child, or worse, a young child with a parent. But her deeply personal experience is also shaped by those closest to her. After the baby's death, Martha and Sean can agree on little. She wants to donate the baby to science; he is not so sure. He wants to pursue a civil court case; she is not convinced. She grieves in silence; he is more talkative. He resorts to drinking; she develops a fascination with apple seeds. And finally the physical intimacy seeps out the marriage, and Sean goes looking for someone else and somewhere else. Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf create a relatable ordinary couple thrust into a dark new reality they are ill equipped to navigate.

To make matters worse Elizabeth never really liked Sean, and now starts manipulating him to poke at her perceptions of Martha's weaknesses. Ellen Burstyn shines as a grandmother channelling her grief into anger and a determination to pin the blame on Eva, because someone simply must be responsible for her hurt.

A speechy ending reaches for a tidy resolution to an untidy tragedy. But Pieces Of A Woman succeeds in portraying with honest sensitivity the shock of death crashing through the door when only a new life was expected.

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