23/04/2021

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‘pieces-of-a-woman’-review:-a-virtuoso-performance-by-vanessa-kirby

‘Pieces of a Woman’ review: a virtuoso performance by Vanessa Kirby

Vanessa Kirby as Martha

Benjamin Loeb / Netflix

Can a film be good if it’s almost unwatchable? In Pieces of a Woman, Vanessa Kirby proves that it can. She plays Martha, a career woman from a genteel family who has daggered her icy mother by marrying across class lines: her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) works in construction and likes a drink. Martha, though, is sticking to water: she’s pregnant. The couple’s artfully tousled Boston apartment is ready for their baby – the cot is up and ultrasound photos are framed on the walls – but when Martha’s waters break in the kitchen one evening, her planned home birth goes horrifically awry.

Shia LeBeouf as Sean and Vanessa Kirby as Martha

Benjamin Loeb / Netflix

Martha’s labour is the film’s centrepiece; a near-half hour ordeal largely unbroken by cuts that I watched through my fingers, my body crimped by the pain and terror Kirby conveys, in an unforgettably physical performance. As she lows and pushes and pleads for it all to end, Sean holds her. Martha’s preferred midwife is busy elsewhere, so she and Sean have to contend with Eva, a nunnish midwife they don’t know (played superbly by Molly Parker). Eva checks the baby’s vitals when she arrives and is satisfied – but later, when Martha is fully dilated, the baby’s heart rate plummets. Martha has a snatched moment of joy with her newborn daughter, before she dies. The rest of the film follows the trail of Martha’s grief, and the erosion of her relationships with both Sean and her mother.

Shia LeBeouf as Sean and Vanessa Kirby as Martha

Benjamin Loeb / Netflix

There are problems with the film, and most pile up in the final slushy half hour. While Kirby’s embodiment of a bereft and shellshocked woman is hard to fault, the decision Martha made to opt for a home birth in the first place never fully convinces; she just seems so sensible. Following the baby’s death, Martha’s family decides to go after the midwife in court; Eva, we are told, has become a national hate figure, hung up to dry by the TV news networks. But since the midwife didn’t do anything obviously wrong during Martha’s labour, this courtroom plot-line merely irritates. It’s also frankly difficult to banish all thought of the allegations that have massed on Shia LaBeouf’s doorstep since the film was made – not least because here LaBeouf plays a violent, cokey, bottle-swinging bruiser who shags Martha’s plain-Jane cousin. Prince Charmant he ain’t.

Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth

Benjamin Loeb / Netflix

Yet Kirby’s magnetic performance scoops the film from the sloughs of its own making. And Kirby finds her equal, if not in LaBeouf than in Ellen Burstyn who plays her mother. Her grief and aggrievement at the death of her granddaughter prove – almost – all-consuming. This isn’t a film to bung on for a bit of light entertainment, but it’s moving and unusual and even slightly majestic, so worth catching even so.

FOUR STARS



Pieces of a Woman is out on Netflix on 8 January.

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