sat 02/07/2022

Pieces of a Woman review - a home birth ends in tragedy | reviews, news & interviews

Pieces of a Woman review - a home birth ends in tragedy

Pieces of a Woman review - a home birth ends in tragedy

Vanessa Kirby excels in devastating exploration of grief and loss

Before the birth: Sean (Shia LaBeouf) and Martha (Vanessa Kirby)Benjamin Loeb/Netflix

This is not a film to watch if you’re pregnant. One of the first scenes, a 24-minute continuous take of a home birth that ends in tragedy, is extraordinarily powerful and painful to watch – almost unbearable sometimes – and Vanessa Kirby as Martha, groaning and growling her way through a very realistic labour, is brilliant and unforgettable.

Director Kornél Mundruczó and his wife, writer Kata Wéber (White God, Jupiter’s Moon), wanted to share something of their own similar experience of loss and originally wrote a version for the stage – it premiered in Poland in 2018. But Wéber wanted to expand it into something more wide-reaching. Although not a complete success, it’s moving and shows how grief is perceived and co-opted by others.

Martha and Sean (an excellent Shia LaBeouf) are a Boston couple: he’s a construction worker on the bridges, has six years of sobriety under his belt and was in a Seattle grunge band back in the day. She’s posher, with an office job and a formidable Holocaust-survivor mother, Elizabeth (a marvellous Ellen Burstyn), who fiercely disapproves of Sean. In an opening scene, just after Martha leaves the office to start maternity leave, Elizabeth tries to “minimise” him, as he puts it, by buying them a car that, according to him, he could have bought himself.

Their relationship, though close, looks as if it might not withstand many knocks. During the labour, beardie Sean tries his best in a lukewarm way, getting water and rubbing Martha’s back when asked, and trying to distract her with some of his trademark feeble jokes: “Where does broccoli go to get a drink? To the salad bar.”

piecesAt first things seem to be ticking over. “We’re getting a little bit of a rhythm going,” says Sean, irritatingly, on the phone to Barbara, their appointed midwife. But she’s busy with another labour and a replacement, Eva (Molly Parker; House of Cards; pictured above), who they’ve met but don’t know well, takes over. Laughing inanely, she doesn’t inspire confidence and you want to shake the increasingly panicked smile off her face and yell, "Get the woman to a hospital."

This birth scene is so visceral, so traumatising, that the second half of the film (executive produced by Martin Scorsese) is doomed in some ways to limp along in comparison, with some unsatisfactory loose ends in the narrative. But Kirby’s performance remains very moving, from her furious dignity at her first day back at work where her colleagues stare at her dumbly, to the misery of leaking breasts as she locks eyes with a child in a department store, and her lonely decision over the burial of her baby. The bureaucracy involved echoes the mundane first scene of her signing papers for the car.

Her mother, sister (Iliza Shlesinger) and Sean are bent on suing the midwife, who’s facing five years in prison, and Sarah Snook (Shiv in Succession) plays, to type, a hard-nosed lawyer, a cousin, who takes on the case: “You could win millions.” Martha feels alone and isolated and she and Sean can’t find common ground. He attempts, violently, to have sex with her (unfortunately you can’t help thinking about FKA twigs’s current lawsuit against LaBeouf). As devastated as Martha, he turns back to booze and cocaine. Their relationship disintegrates as does the apartment, with its dying spider plants, a sink piled up with dishes, a freezer empty apart from frozen vegetables that Martha uses to soothe her aching breasts.

Vanessa Kirby as MarthaA family lunch underscores the distance between them all, though Elizabeth’s virtuoso speech to Martha about her own mother giving birth to her when hiding from the Nazis is a catalyst for change, albeit laced with cruelty. When Martha accuses her mother of only thinking about her own needs, Elizabeth retorts, “If you’d done it my way, you’d be holding your baby in your arms now.”

Elizabeth is so keen to get rid of Sean, who knows she thinks he's boorish – "Now there's a Scrabble word" – that she gives him a cheque. "Never come back," she warns. This seems unlikely as they were, briefly, united in their enthusiasm over the court case. Martha even accuses them of teaming up against her. It's a portrait, although not a very consistent one, of a family in crisis that devours its members, and it turns rather too fast into something more sentimental at the end.

The credits, intriguingly, thank Susie Orbach as well as the midwifery team at the Whittington Hospital, where Kirby shadowed an obstetrician and midwives for days – and the authenticity of her remarkable performance certainly shines through.

The authenticity of Vanessa Kirby's remarkable performance shines through


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters