Happy new year everybody. We all knew that the sombre moods and events of 2020 wouldn’t simply disappear in a cloud of black smoke on the strike of midnight on December 31st, but wow, 2021 really has come along with the intentions of upstaging his older brother in style. The UK is in an even stricter lockdown than before, and by the looks of things America is currently attempting to eat itself, so as usual, I have turned to cinema to take me out of it for just a few seconds. The one positive for film lovers is that even though it feels far away, we are very much in the home straight of awards season. The ceremonies themselves will probably look very different this year, but the movies contending for their statuettes are now coming thick and fast. Today’s film in question was Pieces Of A Woman, a drama that had been garnering a lot of attention on the acting front.
Pieces Of A Woman tells the year long story of a disintegrating relationship between Boston couple Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), sparked by the heartbreaking event of a home birth that goes devastatingly wrong. When I say this film starts off strong, I really mean it. The first thirty minutes of Pieces Of A Woman are some of the most claustrophobic and wrenching that I have seen for some time. A pretty much half hour long one-shot set piece detailing the traumatic home birth, and it gives an excruciating account of how the best moment in a person’s life can turn into the worst in a matter of seconds. And all of this before the film’s title card has even popped up on the screen.
Frustratingly, the following ninety minutes never quite manage to live up to that astounding opening. Don’t get me wrong, Pieces Of A Woman is a drama that is well executed and particularly well acted, but as the narrative progresses it can’t help but fall into a number of the grief tale tropes that we are all so familiar with. The opening feels completely fresh and striking, with the rest slipping into more of a typical melodramatic rhythm that doesn’t make as much of an impact. There is plenty to get your teeth stuck into, and there is plenty to be touched by, but but by the very end I didn’t expect to be thinking what I was thinking, that the film isn’t too many degrees away from something that Lifetime produce. With the exception, of course, of those first, memorable, 30 minutes.
In some ways, the viewing experience of Pieces Of A Woman is reminiscent to that of Hillbilly Elegy, in the sense that there is certainly a lot of Oscar baiting going on in terms of dramatic performance and themes. Whilst I think Pieces Of A Woman is a far superior film to Hillbilly Elegy, they definitely share certain vibes when it comes to singular performances and the almost visible outstretched hands, waiting for awards to be placed in them. I don’t actually mind awards bait when it is done well (my first point of reference is always Meryl Streep in August: Osage County), but the facts are that Pieces Of A Woman doesn’t quite find the balance.
Any fans of The Crown will already know how magnetic and amazing Vanessa Kirby is, and she continues to be so here. As Martha, Kirby is tasked with showcasing grief from the loss of a child in a very different way than most stories. There’s no doubt that the character falls apart, but the pieces that this woman break into stay very much within herself, and it results in an impenetrable, stoic performance that feels very real and very raw. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that Kirby’s performance alone carries the film, but it is certainly the best element.
Ellen Burstyn has a juicy supporting role as Martha’s mother Elizabeth, but there are moments when it veers into ‘over the top’ for me. There is a particular scene and monologue that is no doubt going to do the rounds when it comes to awards nominations, but as I was watching I could feel that something was off, and have since learned that some of that speech was improvised. Burstyn’s star quality is front and centre, because guess what, she’s a fucking star, and her screen presence does carry her through.
Shia LaBeouf is frustratingly good as Sean, and I say frustrating because the recent allegations against him that he has since accepted make it very difficult for me to give him anything more than brief praise before waiting to move on. I must say, the direction and actions of Sean’s character in the context of LaBeouf’s real life make for some uncomfortable viewing in parts.
Overall, Pieces Of A Woman is a solid drama that explores an unthinkably tough situation, but an amazingly strong start is never quite matched by anything that follows. Given the raw, grittiness of the opening 30 minutes, I was surprised to see the film unfold in such a melodramatic and tropes way, and whilst some of the key performances are definitely worth a watch, I can’t imagine that I’ll be seeking it out for a second watch anytime soon. Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn will definitely be receiving their fair share of awards in the coming months, but for me, Pieces Of A Woman as a whole doesn’t quite warrant the hype.