Skip to main content

Lift your head and fight for yourself, for God's sakes! Go out there and face that woman.

Pieces of a Woman 
(2020)

(SPOILERS) Convincing suffering is a tried-and-tested way to win Oscar attention, if not necessarily to win the Oscar. You have to be careful not to overdo it. Don’t seem too eager for that statuette, or perform too shamelessly en route. Pieces of a Woman had Oscar portents in its favour owing to a half-hour opening section that sets a mood of virtuous realism and honesty in its treatment of expectation for and subsequent loss of a child, so providing the necessary “authentic” backbone once the more Hollywood flourishes, those really designed to grab the voters’ votes, set in.

I should be fair minded to director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber, who based Pieces of a Woman on their play and evidently approached the project from their own experiences of loss and grieving. Raw experiences don’t always make for the most effective dramatisations, however, particularly once they have been fed through the meat grinder of invention and artifice required by the typical movie. The opening single-take section follows the homebirth of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LeBeouf) as assisted by midwife Eva (Molly Parker). It’s this that represents the picture’s major talking point, dedicated to mapping out the events that lead to the baby being pronounced dead. The sequence is scrupulously diligent. Albeit, I’m less convinced of its merit as a piece of drama, which only reveals itself in the final few minutes.

Nevertheless, it has set the critics wowing and ah-ing as intended, so the rest of the movie is able to lapse into something more familiar and characteristic of character-driven indie fare. Martha and Sean become distanced from each other, the former withdrawing and the latter taking up his drug regimen again (ideal for LaBoeuf). Meanwhile, Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) throws her matriarchal weight around, pressing for Eva’s prosecution. Burstyn at least brings some firepower to the material, but she’s unable to overcome the problem that every wheel set in motion after the opening is a predictable one, so serving to undercut its “statement” that this would avoid easy options and subplots. Why, not only does Sean resume his habit, but he also starts banging the prosecuting attorney (Sarah Snook)! And then, Elizabeth pays him off to leave for Seattle.

I have to admit, I never believe LaBoeuf is a real person. In anything. This isn’t because he’s unable to sustain his roles dramatically, but rather because he brings an insurmountable amount of baggage to anything he plays. He’s the dingbat who wants to be a De Niro. Obviously, De Niro is also a dingbat, but… At any rate, the more Sean behaves like an asshole, the more believable LaBoeuf is as Sean, but you’re never less than achingly conscious of his suffocating method posturing.

Kirby’s good, but is she Best Actress Oscar good? Well, she definitely gets my vote over Viola Davis’ prize ham. Kirby’s is a frequently interior performance, set off by several grandstanding moments, and she sustains both extremes with due conviction. Rather undone by the contrived courtroom finale, though (yes, Pieces of a Woman remembers it needs a dramatic showdown at the end, even though we’ve had barely a whiff of Eva in the meantime). There are some interesting but overcooked attempts to reflect the subjectivity of that night’s experiences, before Martha stops off to look at photos taken during the birth; she returns to the courtroom newly determined, and in an “I’m going to allow this” moment worthy of Glab in Futurama, the judge lets her deliver an impassioned (Oscar-worthy) exoneration of any intentional malpractice on Eva’s part.

There’s a slightly pat undercurrent in respect of her relationship with Elizabeth here too, since it is Elizabeth who has pressed that Martha should “Go out there and face that woman” in court (having already asserted that, if Martha had done things her mother’s way – had a hospital birth – the baby would still be alive, leading to a “This is how we get Burstyn to sign on” speech concerning her poor mother’s experiences). Martha duly shows herself in court, and if she doesn’t do things Elizabeth’s way, it’s nevertheless evident that her way of “facing that woman” has earned her mom’s respect.

I’m not entirely convinced the interrogation of midwifery here – what there is of it – is as fair minded as the makers would probably like to think. It is, after all, focussing on a homebirth that ends in bereavement, so it is loaded as a warning and cautionary to any prospective mother who might assume avoiding hospitals is preferable. Better not to chance calling that ambulance at all, right? Elizabeth also objects to Elizabeth’s plans to donate her baby’s body to science; if the makers don’t come out and say it, then implicitly, since Elizabeth is against it, it must be a good thing. I’m sure Mundruczó and Wéber would get the Rockefeller Founation seal of approval for their fine work here.

Burstyn expectedly slam dunks it. Snook plays someone a bit above it all, so par for the course for her. Likewise, Benny Safdie essays someone irritating. Howard Shore overdoes the emotive cues. Pieces of a Woman is one of those actor-friendly vehicles unlikely to gain much traction, even if by some unlikely chance Kirby walks away with the honours on Oscar night (see also Judy, Still Alice, Blue Jasmine, The Reader and most famously – or not – Blue Sky). For all its attempts at honesty, it’s that bit too calculated, yet not calculated enough to achieve truly across-the-board favour.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism

Yeah, it’s just, why would we wannabe be X-Men?

The New Mutants (2020) (SPOILERS) I feel a little sorry for The New Mutants . It’s far from a great movie, but Josh Boone at least has a clear vision for that far-from-great movie. Its major problem is that it’s so overwhelmingly familiar and derivative. For an X-Men movie, it’s a different spin, but in all other respects it’s wearisomely old hat.

So, crank open that hatch. Breathe some fresh air. Go. Live your life.

Love and Monsters (2020) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, Michael Matthews goes some way towards rehabilitating a title that seemed forever doomed to horrific associations with one of the worst Russell T Davies Doctor Who stories (and labelling it one of his worst is really saying something). Love and Monsters delivers that rarity, an upbeat apocalypse, so going against the prevailing trend of not only the movie genre but also real life.

Dad's wearing a bunch of hotdogs.

White of the Eye (1987) (SPOILERS) It was with increasing irritation that I noted the extras for Arrow’s White of the Eye Blu-ray release continually returning to the idea that Nicolas Roeg somehow “stole” the career that was rightfully Donald Cammell’s through appropriating his stylistic innovations and taking all the credit for Performance . And that the arrival of White of the Eye , after Demon Seed was so compromised by meddlesome MGM, suddenly shone a light on Cammell as the true innovator behind Performance and indeed the inspiration for Roeg’s entire schtick. Neither assessment is at all fair. But then, I suspect those making these assertions are coming from the position that White of the Eye is a work of unrecognised genius. Which it is not. Distinctive, memorable, with flashes of brilliance, but also uneven in both production and performance. It’s very much a Cannon movie, for all that it’s a Cannon arthouse movie.

A drunken, sodden, pill-popping cat lady.

The Woman in the Window (2021) (SPOILERS) Disney clearly felt The Woman in the Window was so dumpster-bound that they let Netflix snatch it up… where it doesn’t scrub up too badly compared to their standard fare. It seems Tony Gilroy – who must really be making himself unpopular in the filmmaking fraternity, as producers’ favourite fix-it guy - was brought in to write reshoots after Joe Wright’s initial cut went down like a bag of cold, or confused, sick in test screenings. It’s questionable how much he changed, unless Tracy Letts’ adaptation of AJ Finn’s 2018 novel diverged significantly from the source material. Because, as these things go, the final movie sticks fairly closely to the novel’s plot.

I was toying with the idea of translating Kafka into Welsh, but how do you translate his values?

Only Two Can Play (1962) (SPOILERS) There aren’t very many occasions when Peter Sellers immersed himself in “proper” characters, as opposed to caricatures or sketches. Probably because, in such instances, he had too little foliage with which to conceal himself. Mostly, these were straight roles ( Mr. Topaze , Hoffman , The Blockhouse ), but there’s also this, a curiosity of a kitchen-sink comedy from Launder and Gilliat. Only Two Can Play ’s far from the top of their game, an adaption of Kingsley Amis’ second (published) novel That Uncertain Feeling – his first, Lucky Jim , had earlier been made by the Boulting Brothers – but it’s an interesting performance from Sellers, filtered through a Welsh accent and a dry wit.

It’s always open season on princesses!

Roman Holiday (1953) (SPOILERS) If only every Disney princess movie were this good. Of course, Roman Holiday lacks the prerequisite happily ever after. But then again, neither could it be said to end on an entirely downbeat note (that the mooted sequel never happened would be unthinkable today). William Wyler’s movie is hugely charming. Audrey Hepburn is utterly enchanting. The Rome scenery is perfectly romantic. And – now this is a surprise – Gregory Peck is really very likeable, managing to loosen up just enough that you root for these too and their unlikely canoodle.

Now listen, I don’t give diddley shit about Jews and Nazis.

  The Boys from Brazil (1978) (SPOILERS) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man ; it has no delusions that it is anything other than garish, crass pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves , and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an Oscar-strewn biopic ( Patton ), or keeping one foot on the ground with material that might easily have induced derision ( Planet of the Apes ), here the eccentric-but-catchy conceit ensures The Boys from Brazil veers unfavourably into the territory of farce played straight.

Never underestimate the wiles of a crooked European state.

The Mouse on the Moon (1963) (SPOILERS) Amiable sequel to an amiably underpowered original. And that, despite the presence of frequent powerhouse Peter Sellers in three roles. This time, he’s conspicuously absent and replaced actually or effectively by Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins. All of whom are absolutely funny, but the real pep that makes The Mouse on the Moon an improvement on The Mouse that Roared is a frequently sharp-ish Michael Pertwee screenplay and a more energetic approach from director Richard Lester (making his feature debut-ish, if you choose to discount jazz festival performer parade It’s Trad, Dad! )

I can always tell the buttered side from the dry.

The Molly Maguires (1970) (SPOILERS) The undercover cop is a dramatic evergreen, but it typically finds him infiltrating a mob organisation ( Donnie Brasco , The Departed ). Which means that, whatever rumblings of snitch-iness, concomitant paranoia and feelings of betrayal there may be, the lines are nevertheless drawn quite clearly on the criminality front. The Molly Maguires at least ostensibly finds its protagonist infiltrating an Irish secret society out to bring justice for the workers. However, where violence is concerned, there’s rarely room for moral high ground. It’s an interesting picture, but one ultimately more enraptured by soaking in its grey-area stew than driven storytelling.