Reel Dad: 'Pieces of a Woman' explores family tragedy

Vanessa Kirby stars in

Vanessa Kirby stars in "Pieces of a Woman."

Netflix / Contributed photo

Tragedies can drive wedges between people.

As “Pieces of a Woman” opens, Martha and Sean eagerly await the birth of their child. Having chosen a home delivery, the partners follow their planned steps to contact the midwife once the contractions follow a prescribed rhythm. When their preferred midwife can’t come, a substitute soon arrives to guide the couple through this special time. Then tragedy strikes. A wedge begins.

The intensity of the opening moments of this film immediately grab our attention. But screenwriter Kata Wéber dilutes the impact by not first giving us the chance to get to know the people. The script focuses more on the events that transpire than on the people clinging to hope. We learn little about Martha and Sean as individuals or a couple, what they want for their child, how they see themselves as parents or what excites and frightens them about parenthood.

Eventually, we learn that Sean once had issues with addiction and Martha still has complex feelings about her mother. We see the couple try to resume life and start to process the pain they share. We observe Martha’s mother attempting to soothe the hurt by contacting lawyers, the temptations that Sean and Martha each consider to escape sadness, and the manipulative legal process intended to make them feel better. But we never see enough of how they feel about life together. What might give them hope. Instead of helping us feel what they experience, how they contend with the emotional scar tissue, the film telegraphs how we should react.

Still, this movie offers many moving moments. Director Kornél Mundruczó uses his camera to explore the settings that Martha and Sean inhabit in detail. He creates sustained suspense in his deliberate choice to shoot the opening sequence in continuous camera movement. He beautifully directs Ellen Burstyn to deliver a shattering performance as Martha’s mother, letting his camera linger on her face filled with wisdom and her words dripping in disappointment. But the director’s work is limited by the words in the script and, without them, his camera can only suggest dynamics in the relationships the script suggests. He must rely on his actors to project what the script does not capture.

Vanessa Kirby, best known for playing Princess Margaret during the first two seasons of “The Crown,” Mundruczó finds an ideal channel to expand the scope of Wéber’s narrative. In this intensely physical performance, Kirby uses each movement and expression to paint a gripping portrait of maternal pain. But her performance, like the film, is limited by the words, and she’s often left on her own. Only in her exchanges with Burstyn, where the two actors connect in a special way, do we forget we’re watching performances. For those moments, we feel as if we have intruded on private moments of pain.

Yes, tragedies can drive wedges. “Pieces of a Woman” is at its best when it explores this journey, identifies the destination and studies the impact. But the movie only finishes part of the job.

“Pieces of a Woman” runs 2 hours and 6 minutes. The film is rated R for language, sexual content, graphic nudity and brief drug use. The film is streaming on Netflix.

Summary: Pieces of a Woman

Content: Medium. Director Kornél Mundruczó constructs a beautifully-shot study of family tragedy that, unfortunately, is limited by its script.

Entertainment: Medium. The essential tragedy of the story, and the lack of detail in the characters, unfortunately dilutes the impact of the film.

Message: High. Although the script limits how well we get to know the characters, the tragedy they face is extremely moving.

Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to learn from what others can experience can be meaningful, even when the film could deliver more.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt a chat with adults about what it takes for relationships to survive the wedges that tragedy can bring. This is not a film for the family.