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'Pieces of a Woman' review: Difficult to watch, but essential viewing

Vanessa Kirby as Martha in "Pieces of a

Vanessa Kirby as Martha in "Pieces of a Woman." Credit: Netflix/Benjamin Loeb

MOVIE "Pieces of a Woman"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Vanessa Kirby stars as Martha Weiss, a Boston woman facing the trauma of a home birth tragedy and its aftermath, in this drama from director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber that's now streaming on Netflix and playing in limited theatrical release.

Organized in chapters covering single days spanning the death of Martha's newborn baby girl and the ensuing months, the movie co-stars Shia LaBeouf as her partner Sean Carson, Ellen Burstyn as her mother Elizabeth and other luminaries ranging from Sarah Snook ("Succession") to Molly Parker ("Deadwood") and Benny Safdie ("Uncut Gems").

MY TAKE "Pieces of a Woman" unfolds over the course of a Boston winter, under the pall of a perpetually gray sky, as its shattered protagonist floats through a world filled with familiar sights and sounds that she no longer recognizes.

That's an apple in a store, and her office at work, and the home she shares with her partner, with whom she made plans and shared dreams that now seem as distant as a lifetime ago.

This is a movie about grief that has the wisdom to depict how it often materializes: not necessarily in outbursts of sadness and rage, but in a waking somnambulant state. The house plants have died, the sink has filled with dishes, a happy relationship rots and decays, transformed by what has been lost.

Vanessa Kirby, best known for playing Princess Margaret in "The Crown," imbues in Martha the sense of a deep and lasting wound.

We first see her leaving her office after a baby shower, meeting up with Sean to pick up a minivan that Elizabeth has bought for them, and then going home, where she goes into labor.

These notes of optimism are transformed after she loses her baby in a sequence spanning approximately 20 minutes that stands as a virtuoso filmmaking achievement because it refuses to hide from the enormous horror of the moment. It is extraordinarily difficult to watch — utterly wrenching, in fact — but it's performed and portrayed with keen attention to the shock of a joyful moment turning suddenly, horrifically tragic.

It is shattering and the brilliance of Kirby's performance lies in the way she holds onto that feeling even as the days and months go by and Martha occupies those same spaces that once offered so many reasons for hope and joy.

Her mother tries to shove her out of this dark place, showing what she surely feels is "tough love" and encouraging her to take out her anger on midwife Eva Woodward (Molly Parker), who faces prison time for professional failures.

Burstyn, an icon who remains as compelling of a screen presence now as she was decades ago, brings a sense of righteous fury to Elizabeth that explodes in a monologue captured in a single close-up shot, in which she confronts her daughter and demands that she pick herself up off the mat.

A simpler movie might have listened to Elizabeth. It would show us a woman processing everything and finding a way to overcome the darkness, to take back a measure of that happiness and step into the light.

This one understands that time does not heal all wounds and that even within a new normal, some things cannot be fixed.

BOTTOM LINE This is a very difficult movie to watch, depicting an enormous tragedy in excruciating detail, but it is also essential viewing.

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