Vanessa Kirby is searingly good in the ferocious and grief-stricken Pieces of a Woman
“Tell her what it’s like for you now, what this feels like”
Back in 2011, it was clear to see that the cast of Royal Court play The Acid Test would be destined for great things and it is pleasing to see Phoebe Fox and Lydia Wilson graduating to such interesting careers. The third key member of that company though – Vanessa Kirby – has managed to climb the gradient to another level, parlaying her big-time break through role as Princess Margaret in The Crown to roles in two major action franchises in Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible and now Oscar buzz for two of her roles this past year.
First up here is Pieces of a Woman, directed by Kornél Mundruczó from a screenplay by Kata Wébe and based on their play for TR Warszawa. It is a powerful and punishing look at the shattering effects of the loss of a newborn on a young-ish couple expecting their first child. Born out of the experiences of the writer/director couple, the film hooks on an astonishing single-shot take that lasts for 23 queasily, uneasy minutes that takes us through the increasingly traumatic labour of Kirby’s Martha, supported by partner Sean (Shia LeBeouf) and last-minute replacement midwife Eva (Molly Parker).
It’s almost a test of endurance, reveling in disorientating the watcher. daring you to look away as we wait for the inevitable hammer-blow to fall. But once it does, the film maintains some of that unearthly quality as Martha struggles to comes to term with her loss, but also with the way in which the bereavement has affected other people around her. Her mother Elizabeth (an excellent Ellen Burstyn) finds comfort in pursuing a court case against the midwife but her own experiences, as a Jewish woman born in Nazi occupation, put her firmly at odds with her daughter even in the midst of such grief.
And Martha also finds herself increasingly estranged from her other half, Sean’s grief taking a different route which inexorably pulls him away from her. LeBeouf’s gruff physicality is well-suited here as a stark contrast to the vast complexities of Kirby’s performance in all its raw anguish and barely-bottled fury. All the courtroom business might not ultimately quite carry the same weight to it but a final grace note picks things up beautifully.