Pieces of a Woman is a hard film to like. It’s a powerful and, at times, harrowing account of a would-be mother’s experiences in contemporary America, highlighting the problems so often brought to light in a society predicated upon seeking blame for any failure – and where the consequences of such a failure inevitably entails a subsequent court case.
The would-be mother here is Martha (Vanessa Kirby). She and her construction-worker husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), are preparing themselves for the home-birth of their first child, which they already know is a girl. They are anticipating a magical experience. But, when their chosen midwife, Barbara, proves to be unavailable, a replacement is sent in the shape of Eva (Molly Parker). She appears to be perfectly competent and immediately establishes a rapport with Martha but, as the delivery develops, there are unforeseen complications, ones that ultimately lead to tragedy.
This first section is presented in real time and is compellingly performed by the cast, which only serves to make it all the more devastating – but it’s the year-long aftermath of this starting point that contains the film’s true message. As Martha struggles to come to terms with her loss, her wealthy and manipulative mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), insists that blame must be apportioned for her daughter’s loss – and that Eva shall be the one to bear the brunt of it. The ensuing developments drive a wedge between Martha and Sean, that grows wider every day and their marriage suffers.
Writer Kata Wéber’s skilful narrative leads the viewer along a tortuous path. At first, it’s hard to like or feel sympathy for any of these characters, who all seem venal and self-centred, focused purely on their own happiness, and ready to crush anyone who stands in their way. It isn’t until the film’s closing sections that we finally find some redemption for them, and we realise that they are themselves broken by circumstance and by the overpowering weight of grief.
As I said, this is nobody’s idea of a fun night in watching Netflix, but it’s a story that will have resonance for many, and Kirby’s performance in the lead role is memorable. More than anything, it makes me thankful to live in a country where blame culture is less endemic, and where fewer lawyers lurk, waiting to monetise our misery.