Review: Vanessa Kirby gives a shattering performance in the Netflix drama ‘Pieces of a Woman’

Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in the movie "Pieces of a Woman."

In the bruising melodrama “Pieces of a Woman,” Vanessa Kirby does something remarkable and rare — or at least, she makes it seem rare. She brings sharp emotional definition to a character who, in the throes of a devastating loss, refuses to make her feelings easily readable, or consolable, for those around her. Not for her partner, who can scarcely contain his own spasms of grief. Not for the nosy family friend who pulls her into a hug at the supermarket, promising her that justice will be served. And least of all perhaps for the viewer, whom the movie sometimes brings in agonizingly close and sometimes keeps at an equally painful distance, as if to suggest the limits of our understanding and maybe even our right to understand.

Even before tragedy strikes, Martha (Kirby) isn’t particularly expressive by nature. We first meet her on her last day at her Boston office before she goes on maternity leave, enduring her co-workers’ belly pats with a weary smile and then dashing off to meet her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf). They’re picking up a new minivan, that totem of the cozy middle-class domesticity into which they are about to settle, with amused resignation but also real excitement. Tellingly, the van is something of a family affair: Martha’s brother-in-law, Chris (Benny Safdie), works at the dealership, and her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), is footing the bill — a generous but emasculating gesture, Sean notes, from someone who’s never liked him much.

There’s a blunt class tension at work here, one that will be immediately apparent from the casting of Kirby, the willowy English actress who played the young Princess Margaret on “The Crown,” and LaBeouf, a not-so-willowy American actor burying himself here in blue-collar scruffiness. The difference between Sean and Martha feels curiously echoed by the movie itself, which sometimes strikes grace notes with deft, elegant precision and sometimes handles them with power tools. Benjamin Loeb’s sinuous cinematography is both an aesthetic feat and an athletic one, his camera prowling restlessly after the characters as they walk along the Boston waterfront (the movie was shot in Montreal) or wander through rooms and corridors designed for maximum visual glide.

Molly Parker and Vanessa Kirby in the movie "Pieces of a Woman."
(Benjamin Loeb / Netflix)

Those swiftly navigated interior spaces are crucial to the impact of the film’s most technically staggering and emotionally roiling sequence, which you are advised to stop reading about now if you care to experience it with fresh eyes. The devastating blow that sets “Pieces of a Woman” in motion isn’t especially hard to anticipate; it’s what you might expect from a movie that opens with a mother-to-be who, as the title suggests, is about to be shattered. Martha, who has decided on a home birth, fatefully goes into labor the same September night that her midwife is busy with another delivery. A replacement, Eva (a terrific Molly Parker), quickly shows up at their home with warm smiles, gentle reassurances and the faintest suggestion of nerves.

What follows is a stunningly choreographed high-wire act between the actors and the camera, orchestrated by the director Kornél Mundruczó in a 25-minute real-time sequence that contains few visible edits and plays out with astonishing moment-to-moment predictability. It’s the domestic drama as existential roller-coaster, jolting, immersive and utterly merciless. As Sean and Eva busy themselves with last-minute preparations, Martha, groaning with pain and nausea, moves unsteadily from room to room, stalked by a camera whose movements and rhythms seem to echo her own quickening contractions. And Kirby’s performance hits an early peak of utterly persuasive desperation: At one point, her visible fear and visceral agony give away to an eerie calm, a brief moment of respite before the unspeakable happens.

For sheer emotional tension and cinematic virtuosity, nothing that follows during the movie’s eight-month time frame quite matches the impact of this early sequence, which seems only fitting. Something in this household has broken, and any attempt at life afterward will feel, for a long while, like an exercise in futility. Martha returns to work just three weeks later with no explanation, just cool, stony defiance. She speaks matter-of-factly about donating her baby’s body to science. Her expression barely cracks while Sean noisily mourns, as anguished by her seeming indifference as he is by the cruel injustice of the situation. And her calm flashes into contempt whenever her mother intrudes, which is often: Elizabeth urges Martha to bring a lawsuit against Eva, whose degree of culpability is a mystery the movie leaves teasingly unresolved.

This ambiguity is not always the movie’s strong suit. In his two previous pictures, “White God” and “Jupiter’s Moon,” the Hungarian-born Mundruczó showed a talent for infusing thriller conventions with virtuosic technique and blunt, topical ideas. In “Pieces of a Woman,” his English-language debut, he and his regular screenwriter, Kata Wéber, achieve a thunderous emotional sweep that sometimes bogs down in metaphor. Sean, a construction foreman, is working on a bridge project whose slow, steady progress the movie will keep returning to as winter bleeds into spring, as if to underscore the yawning emotional chasms separating its characters. The less said about Martha’s apple obsession, the better.

Ellen Burstyn in the movie "Pieces of a Woman."
(Benjamin Loeb/Netflix)

But while “Pieces of a Woman” is not without its false notes — moments when the music rushes in too insistently or supporting characters (like a family lawyer played by Sarah Snook) who serve too convenient a narrative function — it also has an irreducible core integrity. This movie’s most important pieces work, sometimes terrifyingly well, and it’s no surprise to note that Burstyn’s performance is one of them.

“We need some justice here,” Elizabeth seethes, right before unleashing a stormy tour de force of a monologue that somehow merges a grandmother’s grief, a mother’s rage and a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. It might have seemed overwritten or overplayed in another actor’s hands, but Burstyn rips into it with astounding conviction, briefly turning the story of a child’s death into a larger reflection on generational survival.

One of the movie’s slyer insights is that the two characters who resent each other the most, Elizabeth and Sean, may in fact be kindred spirits. And unwittingly or not, LaBeouf holds up a mirror, at once brutish and vulnerable, to some of his own well-publicized demons: Sean is a recovering alcoholic whose anger can flare into physical aggression, as we see in a tense, abortive sex scene that finds him and Martha struggling to reconnect. It’s impossible to watch these moments without thinking of the recent abuse allegations against LaBeouf or noticing how wholly and sometimes chillingly he seems to understand his character’s fury. It’s a close-to-the-bone turn that will surprise no one who’s seen his self-lacerating screen work of late (like in “Honey Boy”); it may, however, disappoint those who like to conflate artistic and moral excellence.

Arrestingly showy though they can be, these performances never threaten to eclipse or overwhelm Kirby’s concentration. While this remarkable actor can unleash hell with the best of them, her most eloquent gestures here are her quietest, whether she’s staring distractedly into the middle distance or deflecting her mom’s affectionate gesture, as if it were a slap in the face. Kirby’s authority is commanding, even unassailable: At times Martha seems at odds with not only her loved ones but with the very movie she’s in, firmly steering it away from the courtroom drama, or even the portrait of a relationship’s bitter end, that it seems on the verge of becoming. She keeps you off balance right through the dreamlike close, a final scene — brave, misguided or both — that suggests nothing is ever truly final.

‘Pieces of a Woman’

Rated: R, for language, sexual content, graphic nudity and brief drug use

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

Playing: Available Jan. 7 on Netflix