Expecting mother Martha (Vanessa Kirby), comforted by her rightfully nervous husband, Sean (Shia LeBeouf), is but minutes away from giving birth when her second-string midwife, Eva (Molly Parker) arrives on scene. As one would expect, all is well until it isn’t, and by the time all involved in the at-home childbirth realize this, it’s too late. What follows is a months-long saga of grief and forgiveness.
The opening single-shot scene of Martha giving birth is one of the most intense and immersive movie-watching experiences I’ve ever had; in fact, after the opening scene came to an end—once the film’s title is revealed on screen—I had to pause the film, take note that I had only watched the first thirty minutes, and grab myself a drink. From there, though, things start to head south.
Pieces of a Woman comes out swinging, throwing haymakers for the first thirty minutes and then, after becoming winded, spends the rest of the fight, the next two hours, flailing, hoping that you—you lucky and dissatisfied viewer—appreciate the initial effort made and expect nothing more.
What I thought to be an exciting courtroom drama centered on a midwifery witch hunt, ended up being an exploration of deep-seated grief. And, while the film was well-crafted and its performances, exceptional, I was left feeling that the story being told was so personal that I needed some context to truly understand it. No, I didn’t feel like I was being entertained by a series of over-my-head inside jokes that I was socially encouraged to laugh at, but I did feel as though I didn’t do my homework and was nodding in a state of semi-ignorant bliss. Come film’s end I was left asking questions like: What does/did Martha do for a living? Where is Sean’s family? Why didn’t the 911 dispatcher ask for anything other than the caller’s address or offer pre-arrival instructions? Pardon the pun, but there were major pieces missing from Pieces of a Woman that would have otherwise contributed to and made for a fully realized film.
Don’t get me wrong, the story that ensues after the opening scene is heart-wrenching and, at times, incredibly frustrating. Throughout the film, my heartstrings were tugged on quite a bit, but the effects of my film-induced trauma were short-lived. The missing pieces left me rooting for and against paper dolls—one-dimensional things that looked and acted like people but had no lives outside of the film. Because of this, I was unable to commit to the story or invest in its characters.
Despite an apparent lack interest-piquing character details, each of the film’s scenes were well shot and ultimately impressively sequenced. The performances given by all involved were top-notch and consistently convincing. If the credits would have rolled after the opening scene, I would have scored Pieces of a Woman much higher.
The Bottom Line
Heart-wrenching and intense, but ultimately shallow, Pieces of a Woman is an impressive display of filmmaking and performance that’s missing a few key pieces to truly stun viewers.