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  • Writer's pictureEllis Barthorpe

Pieces of a Woman ★★★

Kornel Mundruczó

Starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Benny Safdie

A couple's depletion of joy and hope is captured in long, continuous shots as Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) grapple with emotional fallout following a truly heartbreaking home birth. And little can control them as they fall into an endless chasm of unanticipated suffering.

This is an outstanding masterclass in acting from both leads. The opening 25 minutes being majoratively made up of one, long, continuous shot is so telling and such a testament to the two actors. It made the whole sequence so much more real as we had no moment to pan away from the pain and droll excitement from the couple. Kirby's performance was unbelievably genuine and a multitude of burps somehow made everything so much more naturalistic. LaBeouf had a chaotic energy about him ready to help his pregnant wife in whatever way possible, and his reactions too were mesmerising. Every ounce of emotion that could have seeped from them both did so with tremendous grit and style.

What followed this triumphantly painful scene was almost second best. There was no way that any performance or sequence could match the quality of the prior scene, but some moments of anguish pulled you straight back into the heartbreak and distress. The way that the story showed the different ways to even begin contemplating moving on was excellently diverse and distressing; with Martha showing a naïve resilience and Sean latching on to a last glimmer of hope, through anger and hostility. This did however feel like a cheated conclusion to Sean's arc, focusing so much more on his wife's torment and somehow, when the two characters had been so equal in relevance throughout, I felt it was a sudden change in direction.

I'm not sure whether it was the quality of the lead performances but somehow I felt the supporting cast didn't quite hit the same notes. Not least because they were all written so hideously; not in style but in morals. Ellen Burstyn's Elizabeth in particular was such a negative character, set in her rich, obnoxious ways that it was difficult to hear any side that she had in an argument. And with a few plot details being a little loose, an audience will be left with a slight sense of unknowing which I don't think was an intentional directional choice.

The fluctuation of intensity throughout is immense. And the choice of lighting in so many of the scenes makes for an increase in hope or tragedy. All the shots within the home of Sean and Martha seem to be so much longer showing the intimacy and genuine response to earlier devastation, but anything outside and with other cast members is put together in a more jumbled fashion, leaving the lead characters a little lost in the mix. But when those leads are given a chance to thrive, they really do, giving performances that are career defining.

Pieces of a Woman available now on Netflix

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