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After sleeping on it, I decided to change my initial four star review of Pieces of a Woman to three and a half stars. Those three stars belong to Vanessa Kirby thanks to her powerhouse performance as Martha, the young woman at the centre of the film, as well as the strong writing and direction.
The half star is split between Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn, who both acted well in the roles they were given. Saying that, I didn’t enjoy their characters. Now hear me out on this, as there are several flaws in this film from my perspective that I would like to discuss.
Warning: this is a spoiler-filled review
Firstly, I felt that a lot of the supporting cast are unnecessary. Martha barely interacts with her sister – Iliza Shlesinger’s Anita – so what is the purpose of the character? If it’s to introduce her husband – Benny Safdie’s Chris – who works at a car dealership, was it necessary to have that familial connection?
Similarly with the familial connection with Sarah Snook’s Suzanne, Martha’s cousin who is representing the State in the case against the midwife (Molly Parker’s Eva) and who Sean (Martha’s partner) starts sleeping with.
Now let’s talk about Burstyn’s Elizabeth, Martha’s mother. She’s portrayed as wealthy, obnoxious and hardened, although an impassioned speech in the long second third of the film goes some way to explain why she is like that.
However, what happened in between that emotional incident by the dinner table where Elizabeth implores Martha to attend the trial and Martha walks away in tears? I interpreted that as a no, but yet a few minutes later, Martha’s at the trial and the last third begins.
And their holding hands in the café later? It’s a touching moment, but a bit too easy and sugary sweet for me. Also, and I appreciate families come in all shapes and sizes, but I found Burstyn too old (in her late 80s at the time of filming) to be playing the mother of two women who I would have estimated to have been in their late 20s/early 30s.
Thirdly, and I’ve already touched on this already, Sean is a piece of work and I quickly go from empathy to disgust. LaBeouf plays the role well, but there’s nothing to like about him.
I understand that Martha and Sean work through their grief in very different ways, which ultimately contributes to driving them apart, but what is Sean’s destructive behaviour brought on by his loneliness and grief meant to make us feel? Pity?
Finally, the apples – or rather more specifically, the final scene. Martha says to the judge that her minutes-old daughter smelt like an apple. This is poignant and explains the scene in a supermarket earlier when she holds an apple and brings it to her mouth and nose.
She starts to tend – or perhaps ‘mother’ – the apple seeds, carefully dampening them and storing them in the fridge. I understand that and share in her joy when she sees that they have started to sprout.
The final scene gives us a young girl – presumably Martha’s future daughter – playing in an apple tree. For me, this scene was completely unnecessary and gave us a happy Hollywood-style positive ending that wasn’t called for. It should have added after that powerful, heartfelt speech Martha gave at the trial.
I’m erring towards Pieces of a Woman being unnecessarily melodramatic. The death of a newborn is a hard, sad story that Kirby portrays magnificently so why do we then need the hardened mother and the partner who relapses into drug use and starts an affair?
Some reviews I’ve read have asked whether Pieces of a Woman has been made just to compete in the Academy Awards. Well, who knows, but what this film should be praised for is bringing a tragic story to the big screen that, sadly, lots of people live through.
Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Starring: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn
“When a young mother’s home birth ends in unfathomable tragedy, she begins a year-long odyssey of mourning that fractures relationships with loved ones in this deeply personal story of a woman learning to live alongside her loss” – IMDb.