Pieces of Vanessa Kirby (SPOILERS)
Pieces of a Woman is a deeply affecting drama starring Vanessa Kirby who gives a stunning, awards worthy performance of a mother in shambles in the wake of a terrible family tragedy. The film ultimately is an exploration of the fallout from losing a child shortly after childbirth and the consequences surrounding the horrific tragic event. The writer sought to explore very nearly every angle of a situation like this, how it impacts the mother, her partner, and their loved ones around them. The director set out to create an intimate, realistic, and visceral environment with the film's presentation. The writing at times is admittedly fallible, but ultimately the screenwriter did her research regarding childbirth, legal ramifications in the fallout of the controversy surrounding it, and the clandestine goings-on behind the scenes. Together we will dive into the film deeper in my review.
The acting in this film by its tremendous cast is the premier strongpoint, far and away - bar none. Most specifically, Vanessa Kirby's performance as I alluded to earlier, is by far the strongest and will receive much deserved Oscar attention. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I did predict she would have an Oscar nomination wrapped up - signed, sealed, and delivered - and an Oscar win, all goes well. Now, gloating aside, Ellen Burstyn also gives a stellar supporting performance in this film as her mother. The supporting cast is solid or better all around, but the attention is rightly focused on Kirby and Burstyn. For much of the film, Kirby gives an understated performance of a grieving mother who must live with the deep seeded depression of losing her infant daughter. At the beginning of the film, she must emulate what it is like to be in labor for the entirety of a nearly 20 minute tracking shot. It is absolutely astonishing work, and a must-see for anyone who can appreciate acting as an art-form, and fans of the dramatic genre. Ellen Burstyn, to me, is not as impressive for much of the film. But from the end of the 2nd act on to the end, she gives it her all with a tremendous, emotional performance. The film builds to the end of the 2nd act, which I alluded to, which crescendos in an explosive and vulnerable scene by Kirby and Burstyn. It is absolutely phenomenal work and I believe both of their performances carry the film all the way through. I also have to recognize Shia Lebouf as a solid secondary performer as Vanessa Kirby's partner and Benny Safdie in a neat little almost cameo performance.
The cinematography of the film is the next greatest strength in its arsenal. As I mentioned before, there is a tracking shot of about 15-20 ish minutes towards the beginning of the film. It's practically the opening sequence in its very visceral and emotional cold open. There is a beautiful moment between Kirby and Lebeouf (featured on one of the posters) in which she is in the bath and the caress each other in an embrace for a moment - it's coupled with the cinematography as well as a beautiful piano track behind it. Wonderfully done. There are a couple of these tracking shots throughout the film and they are well-placed and effective. They are also purposeful, and not just for show or flashiness. We experience that lead up to and during the birth with Kirby, Lebeouf and Eve Woodward who plays the midwife. It is incredibly well shot and executed - and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. The other tracking shot I referenced is the crescendo and fever pitch scene towards the end of the 2nd act when tensions build into an explosive argument between Kirby and Burstyn's characters. The tracking shot is well done and gives us the sense that something is boiling beneath the surface until it finally bursts into the pivotal scene. Much of the cinematography beyond the tracking shots is very intimate and favors close-ups heavily, especially holding on Vanessa Kirby's face to highlight her somber and beautifully understated performance. I love the artistic choice of hanging on Kirby's face since she has a very performative face, much of her performance is non-verbal and is in the looks she gives. The cinematography also lets scenes unfold and play out rather than choppy editing or basic shot/reverse shot. This way, we experience the flow of the scene with the actors and the performances, something I love and appreciate.
See how that image is owned by Netflix? Yeah, I don’t own this.
The Execution of the Premise
I felt that the execution of the premise was another one of its primary strengths. As I alluded to earlier, the screenwriter explored much of what perhaps we may not consider when dealing with the death of an infant in the family. All the circumstances surrounding it - tempers flaring among family members, dark pasts being unveiled, a messy legal battle amidst grieving and bereavement, the impact on social and professional lives, the effect it might have on the marriage, causing negative coping mechanisms to occur, the whole nine yards. It explores most everything - and it executes those aspects quite well. How humans might react or deal with these situations is also managed very effectively and is well acted by the performers. This also comes out nicely in planting seeds early on and paying them off in meaningful ways towards the conclusion of the film. Not to mention, these different scenarios also play out nicely in terms of arcs for the characters at the end of it all. I have to give credit where it's due - and that's to both the screenwriter and director for this one. Bravo.
As I'm writing this, it's difficult for me to list this as a strength. I'm conflicted about it. Now, as I mentioned earlier, it is to be commended that clearly the screenwriter did her homework when it came to the subject matter of the film. However, much of the film feels very over-written. There are moments in which characters state exactly what they mean and how they feel - it could have done better with a little more subtext in those moments. On the other hand, I do not want to spend this entire section of my review listing what flaws are within the writing, because there are also very effective moments as well. For example, the entire opening tracking shot had to have dialogue and structure to carry us through the sequence. So, the structure of the screenplay has great strengths when laying it out. Also, the dialogue is very real and very down to Earth. So, props for that. However, I still maintain that there are lines of dialogue that feel like too much. For instance, Vanessa Kirby saying some of the same lines of dialogue over and over. Shia Lebeouf saying phrases back-to-back that mean the same exact thing. Ellen Burstyn speaking on-the-nose lines which could have been more effective as subtext instead. Granted, these are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things as I believe much of the film works quite well. Also, the cinematography, direction, and performances kind of bail out the screenplay at crucial moments. It seems flaws can be masked at moments in which maybe other strengths can overshadow them. But, I will still find them (wink).
Overall, Pieces of a Woman is an effective, affecting, and poignant drama led by an unbelievable Vanessa Kirby performance. As I mentioned in my quick little Letterboxd review, the first 20 minutes of this film is like a short film, and is practically the film of the year. But, the rest of the film ultimately could not live up to that breathtaking sequence which features phenomenal filmmaking, not only because of its remarkable tracking shot. Even with the film's aforementioned flaws, Kirby and Burstyn's performances coupled with the tremendous cinematography are enough to patch those up and give us a worthwhile experience. I will recommend to tread lightly, though, as the film is deeply saddening and often times makes for disturbing viewing, as well. Nevertheless, the film is more than worth seeing for the performances alone. I highly suggest seeking this one out, whether you have a Netflix account or not. You're in for an emotionally troubling and depressing ride.
Painfully Average/run of the mill
How did this get made
Pieces of a Woman is a Netflix Original Drama feature film and is available only on Netflix.