Film & Television

Oscar-Nominee Vanessa Kirby in ‘Pieces of a Woman’

About 10 days ago, New Zealand approved legislation that will allow expectant parents to take three days of paid time off if they suffer a miscarriage or stillbirth. Parliament member Ginny Andersen explains, “The bill will give women and their partners time to come to terms with their loss without having to tap into sick leave. Because their grief is not a sickness, it is a loss. And loss takes time.” 

New Zealand is only the second country to provide this type of leave. India was the first, and allows women to take six weeks of leave after a miscarriage.

The problem is that recovering from the loss Andersen references, even with reassuring data that 80 percent of women who miscarry are able to successfully carry their next baby to term, can take more than three days or even six weeks. Losing a baby before or immediately after birth is a profound and deeply personal experience. And it’s one that playwright and screenwriter Kata Wéber has dramatized powerfully in the Academy Award–nominated film Pieces of a Woman.

Wéber, with husband (director and frequent collaborator) Kornél Mundruczó, drew on her own experience, although in an interview with The Playlist, she’s quick to point out that “it is not comparable at all to what’s in the movie, but still it was something we never talked about. So it was also the point where we were like, ‘O.K. shall we break the silence or what to do with this?’ I was very much afraid to deal with this. So, I actually had to travel away to Berlin and sit down and try to face it somehow. While I was writing, I realized this also works as a therapy somehow, not just because I’m expressing something tragic or a loss, but I’m also feeling that I can talk about the love and the belonging and the grace. So, it was a healing process, I would say.”

Pieces of a Woman begins by introducing us to Martha (the incredible Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (a boorish Shia LaBeouf), a Boston couple on the brink of parenthood. Although they appear to be devoted to each other, there is already tension. Martha’s family, led by opinionated Brahmin matriarch Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), doesn’t completely accept construction worker Sean. Elizabeth purchases a minivan for the couple, a gesture at once generous and emasculating. The awkwardness is temporarily eased when Sean jokes about their new family vehicle, “This is us.” 

Soon, Martha is in labor and what follows is 30 minutes or so of seemingly single-shot directorial wizardry. She’s chosen to have the baby at home and Mundruczó follows her from room to room. As her contractions accelerate, Sean calls the midwife they’ve chosen, but she’s in the middle of an emergency birth and has to send someone else. Eva (Molly Parker) arrives as a calming, encouraging presence, deftly moving Martha into a bath and then onto her bed. Labor is progressing, and Kirby, with a startlingly realistic prosthetic belly, projects every ounce of pain just as LaBeouf does the very real concern and frustration any mother’s partner must feel.

As Eva instructs Martha to start pushing, she checks the baby’s heart rate and realizes that the unborn infant is in distress. Her demeanor changes as she frantically checks the reference material in her bag of midwifery tools and orders Sean to call 911. Martha finally gives birth and for a blessed moment it seems as though she and Sean at last have the daughter they’re prepared for. But, despite Eva’s best efforts and the arrival of paramedics, baby Yvette doesn’t make it.

The sequence is graphic, realistic, and brutal to watch, and will no doubt be triggering to anyone who has gone through a similar, tragic experience. (I delivered a healthy baby girl 23 years ago with virtually no complications and I had trouble watching it.) Kirby earns her Oscar nomination in the first quarter of the film.

And then she goes even further, delivering a heartbreaking portrait of maternal grief.

When we first meet Sean, he’s working on a bridge (a bridge, by the way, which doesn’t exist in or around Boston and only one of the many visual clues that the movie was filmed in Montreal rather than Massachusetts). The continued progress of the bridge serves as chapter headings for scenes set over the next several months. At first the grieving couple is surrounded by awkwardness and silence. They begin to bristle when together and seek refuge outside their apartment. Martha dances with abandon through the night and flirts in dark corners with strangers. Sean, a recovered addict, turns to booze and drugs, as well as an extramarital affair with an obliging attorney. Elizabeth attempts to console her daughter (and control the situation), but doesn’t hesitate to add a dose of blame and guilt. “My granddaughter would be here now if you’d listened to me and gone to the hospital!” Even Martha’s sister attacks her out of sheer frustration, “You need therapy!” she shrieks at a deeply dysfunctional family dinner.

Martha’s family — especially her mother, who asserts, “Someone has to pay!” — as well as the public wants to blame someone, and that blame falls on Eva. She is vilified in the press, and likely to be convicted and sent to prison. Although Martha resists taking part in the trial, she eventually agrees to testify and in doing so, comes to terms with what was once unimaginable. The movie veers a bit into melodrama in the courtroom and in a lovely but rather manipulative coda thereafter. But not only does Kirby’s excellent work rise above any predictability toward the movie’s end, it also brings the entire project together and leaves us in awe of this fine actress’s abilities — even as we admit sharing her experience may have left some emotional bruises.

Kirby, who is probably best known as Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown, is well-matched by the legendary Burstyn as her onscreen mother. The 88-year old actress was not recognized by the Academy this year, but has been nominated six times and won in 1975 for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. As Elizabeth in Pieces of a Woman, she is glorious as an overbearing mother who is fighting for her family even as she fights the early signs of dementia. In her show-stopping monologue at the infamous dinner mentioned earlier, she reveals that she’s also a Holocaust survivor. In less capable hands, the character could easily have veered into stock villainess territory. But Burstyn saw and brings to life a complicated if not terribly likable human being.

When asked by Variety why she agreed to the part, Burstyn displays a sense of humor. “Whenever I’m asked a question like that, I have the impression that people feel I get a million offers and I pick my favorite and that’s not quite true. I don’t have to turn down many films. If I like the director, writers and the actors, I’m prone to take it because in fact, there aren’t many roles written for a woman of my age. So when I get one, I’m usually very happy to get it.”

Kirby, meanwhile, was thrilled to work with the older actress. “Ellen is one of my heroes. I was so excited that she agreed to do it. She’s always had this trailblazing fire in all of her performances.” She also expresses gratitude for having had the chance to bring Martha to life.

“The film felt so much bigger than any of us. This is a subject about neonatal death. The women I spoke that had stillbirths and multiple miscarriages and it’s still a subject that’s really hard to talk about. The fact that this conversation is happening around this [film], that means so much to me. If that means that a few more people watch it or more conversations start happening, and that was everyone’s intention with it. The best moments of my working life was doing that birth. It’s hard to articulate. I’m unbelievably grateful and touched that it’s for this film. It’s my first lead role too and I knew that I was ready.”

Kirby was certainly ready, and while Pieces of a Woman is painful and at times very difficult to watch, it is wholly worthwhile. Her stunning performance is as Oscar-worthy as any in consideration this year.

It may very well have been Kirby’s first lead role, but we can be certain that it won’t be her last.

Pieces of a Woman is available on Netflix.


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