Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Screenwriter: Kata Wéber
Starring: Vanessa Kirby, Ellen Burstyn, Shia LaBeouf, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, sexual content, graphic nudity, and brief drug use
Release Date: 12/30/20 (Limited Theatres); 1/7/21 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2h 6min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%
Where to Watch: Netflix
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Actress (Kirby), Supporting Actress (Burstyn); Long-Shot–Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (LaBeouf)
Pieces of a Woman has been on every film critic’s radar since people started lauding Vanessa Kirby’s lead performance. It’s also one of those awards-bait-y movies that unfortunately only played in limited theatres for about a week before becoming available on Netflix. Despite the truly magnificent performance from Kirby — and a solid, heartbreaking assist from the legendary Ellen Burstyn — the film has too many flaws for it to become an awards contender on its own.
The best part of the movie is the opening, and it’s true that the birthing scene (which takes place at the parents-to-be’s home, accompanied by a midwife) is long and seems authentic (I’ve never given birth, so I don’t know); it’s also very bold to not show the title of the film until about 30 minutes into it. I wish that director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber had made more innovative, interesting choices through the film. I wonder if, because English is not Wéber’s first language, that’s much of the dialogue doesn’t seem quite right, and the interactions between characters don’t seem as natural as one would hope.
That’s not to say that the words aren’t well-performed, especially from Kirby, Burstyn, and an underrated Molly Parker as the midwife who is just trying to do her job, but ends up being blamed for the newborn’s death. The rest of the cast (including a misused, miscast Sarah Snook and Iliza Schlesinger) fails to be as good, and the characters are underdeveloped and perhaps unnecessary. There’s some infidelity that comes out of nowhere, and weird conversation between sisters (Kirby and Schlesinger). I wouldn’t have minded the slower pace of the movie if it was written and put together better. The ending is especially disappointing, as it comes at the end of the protagonist’s journey and is just mediocre.
The opening of the film is where we see the most impressive acting from Kirby — both physically and emotionally, and I’ll try not to spoil the interesting things she does with her body and with her voice. Her chemistry with Shia LaBeouf is those scenes is quite good, which makes what happens later all the more upsetting — compounded with the recent abuse allegations against him, it’s hard to watch what he does later on and not be disturbed. That’s not to say he isn’t great, but perhaps he’s just playing some version of himself. It’s interesting to see how explosive is performance is, in the later scenes, in contrast to Kirby’s controlled, internal one. She’s so effective and memorable that I will be both surprised and let down if she isn’t nominated for an Oscar. Burstyn, too, is great, even in the smaller scenes, and she gives one piercing monologue [that really makes no sense] to Kirby that is so well-acted it seems she’s also a shoe-in for the Oscars. (Side note: It’s not believable that the 88-year-old Burstyn is mother to 32-year-old Kirby).
Mundruczó, as a director, is not bad, but makes some odd filming choices — such as focusing in on Kirby’s neck during a courtroom scene. However, I’m interested in seeing what else Mundruczó can do, hopefully with a better, more cohesive script. That said, if you want to see a movie with terrific acting, this is a good choice, as Kirby, Burstyn, and also Parker elevate the material.