Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is going through labour at home with her other half sean (Shia LeBeouf), but the birth of their first child ends in tragedy as their baby girl dies. The pain, the panic, the giddy highs and hellish lows, it is a raw, brutal and uncomfortable introduction and exquisite film making by the Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó.
Pieces of a Woman tackles a topic rarely seen in film, the loss of a child, and the seemingly single take opening scene is like a sucker punch to the gut. The intensity of the pain is keenly felt and you are drawn in, invested, and want to see how they cope and what happens next. Unfortunately the rest of the film does not live up to the initial promise as the remaining 90 minutes slowly trundle on rather aimlessly.
It strikes a naturalistic tone as the grief stricken Vanessa and Sean try to process what happened and try to deal with the despair day by day, month by month. Both quickly become isolated from each other and their family, with Martha butting heads with her upper class mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstynn) who dislikes her ‘boorish’ husband. Both go a bit numb, with the gruff, blue collar construction worker going down a path you can see a coming mile off – full of rage, despair and bad decisions. Nothing much happens until a court scene at the end, an obligatory tugging at the heart strings speech, and an ending that is sweet but all too neat.
Whilst it does fail to keep your interest after the distressing opening sequence, what cannot be faulted is Vanessa’s performance. It is a masterclass in acting with the stress, trauma and despair burrowing into her soul and hanging over her life. This haunted yet determined display from The Crown and Mission Impossible: Fallout star will turn judges heads this awards season. Shia LeBeouf takes the rough, enraged and misunderstood working class man in his stride – the kind of role we usually see Ben Affleck in. This will be the last thing he is in for a while though due to allegations of abuse by his ex TKA twigs.
The harrowing opening sequence, brilliant acting, and intense emotion cannot save Pieces of a Woman from becoming a slow, aimless and cliched disappointment that feels longer than it is.