TIFF Review: Pieces of a Woman is a moving drama and stellar acting showcase for Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn

The filmography of playwright/director Kornel Mundruczo is quite interesting from a first glimpse. The standout feature is the fact that his works are usually political parables disguised as genre fare. His last two films White God and Jupiter’s Moon delved into the horror/sci-fi genre but were more about the examination of the inner workings of political strife; especially in the latter when viewed through the eyes of a refugee.

What makes his work more interesting is that those two films were written solely by Kata Weber; a talented playwright herself turned screenwriter. On their third collaboration, they made a play called Pieces of a Woman, which they’ve adapted into their latest film project. With a story about grief, loss and coping, it looks like a strong detour from their previous collaborations.

Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star as Martha and Sean Carson; a happy suburban couple from Boston, Massachusetts who are excitedly expecting a child. The birthing procedure is to be done at home under the supervision of midwife Eve (an assured and subtle Molly Parker), who is the late replacement of the Carson’s original midwife. But the lives of the Carsons change irreparably from the result of the birth.

Split into months in parallel to the construction of a bridge Sean is working on, Martha goes through a year-long journey; trudging through grief via her relationships with her husband, her mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) and the impending court case charging Eve with criminal negligence led by Suzanne (fellow Australian actress Sarah Snook).

Pieces of a Woman can be described as the cinematic equivalent of a therapy session. Alongside that observation, one of the concerning moments of the film was that the story specifically needed a female point-of-view in terms of writing the journey of the protagonist. It feels like a relief that the opening titles credit the project “A Kornel Mundruczo and Kata Weber Film”; hinting that the driving force had Weber in equal power and thankfully it shows in the film.

The film shows Martha coping by becoming cold and distant and finding herself wanting to rid anything in the past involving the baby. That sounds familiar territory found in melodramas but there are inspired moments when she channels her emotions through strikingly minute ways like her attentiveness to an apple she finds in the supermarket. As opposed to Sean’s way of grieving which is to grasp on to everything that reminds him of the child; there is a compelling contrast at play and Mundruczo and Weber do a compelling job of conveying it in an illuminating fashion i.e. how the two find respites in their emotional pain via sexual dalliances.

On the technical front, the home birth sequence of the film is executed in a bravura 27-minute singular take with the cinematography by Benjamin Loeb (best known for his work on Mandy) and the sparse score by master composer Howard Shore both convincingly capture the moods of the characters as it floats when the mood is positive and becomes more sharp as the mood changes.

Loeb’s overall work and colour grading stands out in particular in the third act when the all the major characters reunite before the impeding court case; vividly portraying a bittersweet feel of seasonal colours that feel reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata.

In terms of the performances, Pieces of a Woman is essentially an acting clinic. Kirby pulls off the fragility and simmering hostility of Martha incredibly well while LaBeouf is fantastic as he shows the implosive anger and frustrations of trying to rebuild their relationship. Burstyn is brilliant as Eve who manages to turn what could have been a domineering person – she passive-aggressively looks down on Sean due to his inferior intelligence and lack of financial standing – into a three-dimensional figure as she struggles to find justice in the tragic situation as well as reconcile everyone emotionally. Everyone else in the supporting cast lend credibility to the film, in addition to director Benny Safdie, comedienne Iliza Shlesinger and rising newcomer Jimmie Falls.

As for its flaws, the symbolism in the drama is blatantly obvious via the bridge construction framework. But the biggest flaw in the film is the climax. In most films that take place in the courtroom, filmmakers tend to bring up the pretense that the setting works along the line of theatre that comes across as sanctimonious. To be fair, Pieces of a Woman is based on a play and while the film does not go to those particular extremes – thanks to the performance from Kirby – regardless, the execution stands out negatively in comparison to the proceeding two acts. The film does recover nicely with a satisfyingly understated ending that calls back to the use of apples beautifully.

Overall, Pieces of a Woman is a beautiful, deep and heart-wrenching experience on the perils of loss that is an acting clinic for all involved; especially from Kirby and Burstyn. Recommended.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Pieces of a Woman screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place mostly digitally this year. For more details head to tiff.net.

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