The Netflix film Pieces of a Woman tells the story of a woman named Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf) who lost a child during an at-home delivery. Afterward, Martha and Sean’s relationship fails and the family seeks justice against the midwife, Eva (Molly Parker). Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (played by Ellen Burstyn) offers her own input to the situation and encourages Sean to leave Martha.
The film is raw and stark, depicting the pain of childbirth and the turbulence of the failing relationship that ensues. The movie is set in present day Massachusetts and the beginning includes a joyous baby shower. Sean begins as a supportive and concerned father-to-be, though he later unravels into a short-tempered, troubled character at the lows of his grief. He is a blue-collar construction worker, who is uncomfortably self-aware that he doesn’t fit in next to Martha’s polished family. Martha’s life from the day that she gave birth on is shadowed by a deep and understandable grief that hits hardest during her everyday life. It carries with her during her return to work, a trip to the mall, a trip to the grocery store, and when she notices parents with children on a bus ride. While Martha is our protagonist, both Sean and Martha are flawed characters, grieving separately, and coping in ways that are imperfectly human. Elizabeth provides her input about the perseverance to live. She treats the loss of Martha’s child as a personal failure, and blames herself for not teaching Martha to be stronger. Elizabeth tells the story about how her mother gave birth to her alone at the brink of World War II, and about how she was not expected to survive as a baby. The tone of the movie is a silent, burning sorrow that comes through in the subtleties- a change in facial expression or an uncomfortable pause. Then becomes too striking- an explosive argument or moment of crying. The beginning of the movie is the story of Martha’s birth, a rapidly unfolding medical drama which does not hold back in its slow-burn suspense.
The movie culminates during a courtroom scene. Eva, the midwife, holds back tears as she sits in silence. Martha delivers an emotional speech in which she states, “This woman did not intentionally harm my girl. She only wanted to deliver a healthy baby that night. And I do not think it is your fault, I do not think it is her fault...And if I stand here and ask for compensation or money, then I’m saying I can be compensated, and I can’t. I can’t bring her back. No money or verdicts or sentences can bring back what- how can I give this pain to someone else?” This is one of the few times when Martha is honest about how she feels, and lives up to her mother’s wishes of speaking up for herself.
This film received an array of reviews, ranging from lukewarm positive to negative. Many film critics acknowledged that the portrayal of the subject matter was uncomfortable, though the acting was excellent. One of the negative reviews cited that Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó did not convincingly translate his story to an American setting. Peter Bradshaw, film critic in The Guardian, wrote, “There are times when a North American transplant of this European director is unconvincing, and the central situation itself is like a pop-art image rather than the impassioned real thing.” There were moments in the film that were painfully stark, but I would disagree that it felt like a pop-art image. The film had the talented Martin Scorese as executive producer. As a fan, comedian Iliza Schlesinger was refreshingly authentic in the serious role as Martha’s sister, Anita. My own criticism in Pieces of a Woman is not in the acting or plotline, but instead in the generalities of the scenery. The stark scenery and costumes symbolized the emptiness of the characters’ emotional states and gave the story a less regional and more universal appeal, but made the film less convincing as a portrait of real life.
There is a need for Pieces of a Woman. The birth scene and grief were stark because they illustrate the gravity of real life loss. There are so many couples and individuals who may have a similar story about losing a child, and this film shines a light on a very true-to-life narrative.