Considering how often adaptations of stage plays get criticised for being “too stagey,” it’s quite remarkable how that same criticism is rarely levelled at directors with theatrical backgrounds of their own. This is largely because the best of these understand how to work with the limitations of staging for an audience — whether its Orson Welles’ oft-analysed innovations in Citizen Kane or even a director like Sam Mendes using a one-take conceit in 1917, their aims are the same as they would be in a theatre setting: to further immerse the audience into the central performances. In his English language debut, Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó adapts his own play with a number of directorial flourishes that would feel like pure showboating if they didn’t succeed on this simplest of terms, giving the human drama at the core the exact same urgency as it would have on stage.
This is particularly surprising considering Mundruczó’s two most recent efforts, 2014’s White God and 2017’s Jupiter’s Moon, are by far his most ambitious to date, taking swipes at the far right policies enacted by his home country’s increasingly authoritarian government via expansive sci-fi and superhero movie tropes, his brand of socio-political arthouse maximalism inviting comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón. Jupiter’s Moon in particular proved to be divisive, with its blending of an X-Men style origin story and a commentary on the refugee crisis, but it left many, not least myself, curious to see what he could accomplish if handed a larger budget. Pieces of a Woman may not answer that question, but it does show that by utilising the most expressive of techniques (namely, a gargantuan 23-minute one take shot), Mundruczó can make something that feels just as ambitious, and not to mention rare: an adaptation of a stage play that cleverly hides the limitations of its source material.
Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean Carson (Shia LaBeouf) are a couple expecting their first child, but all starts to go wrong when Martha’s water breaks. Their midwife is busy with another couple, so they’re sent a replacement who doesn’t keep as close an eye on them during their home birth as necessary, leading to a tragedy. As Martha tries to adjust back to reality in the months that follow, she struggles due to Sean’s differing methods of getting back to normal, as well as a controlling mother (Ellen Burstyn) who is insistent on her daughter getting justice in the courtroom, especially after a public outpouring of sympathy. Over the course of a year, Pieces of a Woman follows the strains on Martha’s personal and professional life.
The aforementioned opening act is a masterclass in how to use the long-take technique in a way that feels justified. Following Emmanuel Lubezki’s three consecutive Oscar wins for films that largely unfolded in illusory oner shots, the use of extensive takes in this manner now invites widespread derision, with many written off as nothing more than a director flexing their muscles rather than a filmmaker creating expressive ways to further immerse their audience into the story. Pieces of a Woman succeeds on this front because of its stage origins, with its creator recognising that the power of the first act is the tragedy unfolding in real time. Mundruczó uses one of cinema’s most expressive techniques to replicate something previously only possible to convey on a stage, with the showboating nature easy to look past due to how much of an actor’s showcase it quickly becomes.
Although the fine ensemble shouldn’t entirely be disregarded, the powerhouse lead performance from Kirby does leave the other actors in her shadow — especially in the many moments where they go “big,” like a Burstyn monologue delivered in close up that feels tailor-made to be an Oscar clip. Kirby has the biggest challenge from the opening moments, with the 23-minute take requiring her to deliver a naturalistic portrayal of a woman giving birth amidst the increasing tension, a scene that largely works because of how much the actress has observed the smaller details of pregnancy being overlooked when simulated onscreen. This is a notably unflattering performance, with staggered line readings punctuated by burps and moments of breathlessness, and although Kirby does her best to ground the rest of the drama in a quiet, conflicted anguish, she is at the peak of her powers in this opening act.
Similarly, Pieces of a Woman is never as impactful as it is during the bravura opening stretch, with the looming melodrama tropes eventually transforming a grounded character drama into something far soapier and less satisfying. The tension following this opening act stems from the way Martha’s domineering mother forces her to be involved in the criminal negligence court case she’d rather leave behind, with the film proving to be at its best when leaving this firmly in the background to focus solely on the little ways a grieving mother-to-be has to re-adapt to her life. By the third act, Pieces of a Woman all but abandons realism for a courtroom climax even Aaron Sorkin would laugh off as being too unrealistic. It’s a poignant character study that spreads its focus too widely, and sees its richly-drawn lead character sharing too much time with familial archetypes, all of whom are written in the broadest and most melodramatic fashion.
There’s a lot to admire about Pieces of a Woman, but Mundruczó’s film loses its way as it continues to untether itself from the opening’s grounded realism. Kirby’s exquisite lead performance can only do so much to hide those flaws.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.