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‘Pieces of a Woman’: Heart-stopping beginning leads to an unforgettable character study

Vanessa Kirby a surefire Oscar nominee as a woman responding to tragedy by closing herself off and lashing out at her loved ones.

As her husband (Shia LaBeouf) worries, Eva (Vanessa Kirby) endures excruciating labor in “Pieces of a Woman.”
Netflix

One can imagine some audience members walking out of the theater (or exercising the “EXIT” option on their home viewing devices) during the first half hour or so of “Pieces of a Woman” — not because of any weakness in the movie, but due to the intense, heart-stopping, draining and almost painfully realistic nature of a sequence in which three characters experience some of the highest emotional highs and lowest possible lows imaginable over the course of one evening.

It’s a childbirth sequence. One that ends with unspeakable, terrifying, gut-punching tragedy.

We’re just getting to know Martha and Sean (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf, respectively), a young-ish Boston couple, when Martha goes into labor and Sean calls the midwife because they’ve agreed this will be a home birth. (Sidebar: Boston doesn’t really look much like Boston in this film, with good reason — it was filmed in Montreal.) The midwife they’ve been working with is busy helping deliver another baby, so she recommends a colleague: Molly Parker’s Eva, who has years of experience in the field but is a stranger to Martha and Sean.

As director Kornél Mundruczó films in a docudrama style that feels like one long (approximately 23 minutes) unbroken take, Eva is an initially calming presence as Martha experiences excruciating pain and Sean paces about like a caged animal. But as expertly played by Molly Parker, Eva begins to show flickers of concern in her eyes, the first indication there will be complications, and then further complications, until the decision is finally made to call 911, but the baby isn’t going to wait, the baby is here, and all seems well and joyous and wonderful — until it isn’t.

With a richly layered and resonant screenplay by Kata Wéber, surehanded direction from Mundruczó and a stunningly authentic performance by Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”) sure to garner an Oscar nomination, “Pieces of a Woman” is a stark and unforgettable character study about love and loss, and what loss does to love, and how some tragedies are so devastating, so huge, the survivors will never be the same.

Midwife Eva (Molly Parker) is blamed for a childbirth horror.
Netflix

The question is, will they find a way to continue and to allow themselves to one day feel happiness again?

After that harrowing first act, we segue into a domestic story that adds context to the marriage between Martha and Sean, which wasn’t on the most solid ground before they lost their baby and is now on the verge of ripping apart at the seams. The volatile and almost brutish Sean works on a construction site building a bridge (metaphor duly noted), and he clearly resents Martha’s well-off family, in particular her mother Elizabeth (the great Ellen Burstyn in a nomination-worthy supporting performance), who eventually tells Sean to his face that she’s never liked him, and we can certainly see why.

Martha builds a nearly impenetrable wall around herself, as she methodically goes about the business of making plans to donate the baby’s body to science, snaps at colleagues when she returns to work and gets into some heated exchanges with Sean and her mother. In the meantime, Sean starts sleeping with Martha’s cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook from “Succession”), an attorney who is guiding the family through the legal process as they’ve decided to press charges against Eva the midwife for criminal negligence.

This leads to a third shift in tone, as much of the final act of “Pieces of a Woman” is about the trial, which has attracted considerable media attention, with some painting Eva (and midwives in general) as unqualified to handle medical emergencies, and others wondering why Martha insisted on a home delivery even after it was clear complications were developing. It’s a bit of a jarring segue, as the gritty, indie feel of the story gives way to a sensational, made for Hollywood trial, but we remain deeply invested in these characters and we feel great sympathy for Martha and for Eva. (Sean, not so much. He’s one of those loutish guys who is forever patting himself on the back for taking strides to become a better person, when in fact he’s still a lousy human being and probably will never really change.)

The trial becomes a catharsis for Martha, which leads to an epilogue that some might find a little too tidy, too neatly summed up, but feels well-earned and fitting. It’s a lovely and sunny grace note after a long and cold and bruising journey.