Saving Private Ryan is considered a modern American film classic. Still, one enduring critique (that Harvey Weinstein used to upset it at the 1999 Oscars) is that the film doesn’t sustain the breathless heights of its legendary Omaha Beach opening sequence.
Pieces of a Woman could face the same critique.
In this case, the Omaha Beach is a home birth gone tragically wrong. One night, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) goes into labor with her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) by her side. Everything appears normal at first, but the problems begin to pile up, from a last-minute switch in midwives to Martha’s severe nausea and discomfort. Martha and Sean’s dream of parenthood unravels into a nightmare in one continuous take, ending in the loss of their daughter. Kornél Mundruczó’s unflinching direction and Vanessa Kirby’s performance, comprised of soul-piercing wails and dissociated exhaustion, make pure horror out of the first 30 minutes, punctuated by the tragedy’s inevitability. Martha and Sean may not realize the gravity of their situation, but Mundruczó makes sure the audience does, and are left to watch helplessly.
Pieces of a Woman tries to survey the emotional wreckage, but stumbles. Mundruczó fails to translate Martha’s emotional shutdown into a compelling second act. His characters wander around in an idle daze, quite literally in Martha’s case. There are vestiges of a plot: Sean and Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) bring charges against the midwife Eva for negligence, but Martha’s absence relegates it to the periphery, even though it makes for an interesting lens to explore grief. What else happens – the fights, affairs, sobriety breaks, sex with dubious consent – feels perfunctory and lacking purpose. The liberties taken with the timeline don’t help, with the film skipping months at a time to indiscriminate points of Martha’s life. There is no grounding force or forward momentum to keep us engaged, turning what was an uncomfortably captivating experience into an almost-dull one.
The flaccid energy picks up in the final act after a birthday celebration for Elizabeth turns into a mother-daughter showdown from which Oscar dreams are born. The scene manages to overcome the tonal whiplash to speak poignantly about loss, survival, and how different grieving processes are received and accepted by the outside world. Ellen Burstyn and Vanessa Kirby are dynamite together, communicating waves of pent-up frustration and traumatic pain in moments that almost match the opening scene. Mundruczó lowers the heat afterward, but the emotions Burstyn and Kirby dig up permeate through the remainder of the film, allowing Mundruczó’s meditative, quieter moments to land better than they did before.
Pieces of a Woman’s fluid, uneven narrative structure puts a lot on its cast’s shoulders, especially Vanessa Kirby. With the holes in the script, she must be the film’s emotional core, linking us to Martha’s grieving process and the film’s broader perspective on loss. Kirby’s commitment to that responsibility is thorough and intense, at both ends of the emotional spectrum. As a woman in labor, her confusion, exhaustion, and pain are tangible. As a woman in mourning, she laces her stoicism with the sadness and anger that Martha refuses to let herself feel. Kirby balances multiple balls of emotion at once throughout the film, and even when the writing encourages her to go all-in, she never drops one. It’s a remarkable, star-affirming performance.
Kirby’s co-stars don’t have to bear the film’s weight as she does, but their performances are strong compliments. Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn could easily see herself in the running for Best Supporting Actress, thanks to her incendiary scene with Kirby, jump-starting the whole film with a potent mix of disappointment, anger, and decades-old pain. The camera smartly closes in to let her take command, and she does so effortlessly. Were it not for his indefensible personal behavior, LaBeouf could’ve made his awards run with his career-best performance as a grieving father trying to connect with anyone or anything over his loss.
If a film only needed a powerful beginning and powerful performances, then a solid case could be made for Pieces of a Woman being the year’s best film. It can be affecting when it has something to say or show. Unfortunately, there’s too much time when it doesn’t, robbing the movie of vitality in favor of navel-gazing.