Relationship

Pieces of a Woman review – agonised portrait of a splintering marriage


Martha and Sean Carson are an average Boston couple preparing for the arrival of their first child. They’ve got the ultrasound scans framed and mounted on the wall. They’ve got the big family car that Martha’s mother just bought them. (“Grey like her soul,” jokes Sean.) Everything’s set; the future is all scripted. Then the home birth goes awry and everything else follows suit. Their well-ordered life becomes a veritable long day’s journey into night.

Pieces of a Woman is the first American picture from the talented Hungarian film-maker Kornél Mundruczó and showcases a pair of full-blooded performances from Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf. Back in his homeland, Mundruczó crafted such brilliantly strange and potent pictures as White God and Johanna. He’s jettisoned the strangeness en route, but appears to have bulked up for more power. This film roars and rages like a wronged stevedore.

Sean works in construction and talks about resonances and particle physics; the way in which certain conflicting vibrations can reduce solid structures to rubble. He’s talking about bridges but he’s thinking about his own marriage. The trauma of his daughter’s death exposes hairline cracks and buried tensions. Martha is from a good family; he is a blue-collar Joe. She is cool and collected; he is a total hothead. On top of all that, they have to contend with Martha’s rich, aged mother (nicely played by the great Ellen Burstyn, with glittering, tragic eyes and a core of inner steel). The old matriarch is constantly pulling strings, waving cheques, offering unsolicited advice. She says: “Martha, if you’d done it my way, you’d be holding your baby in your arms right now.”

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It takes a village to raise a child, it is said, and in this case a whole city to ensure that one is laid to rest. In between the domestic squalls, Mundruczó turns his camera on a wintry Boston where snow plasters the trees and ice flows in the harbour. It’s a place (paging Cheers) where everybody knows your name and where everyone appears to be at least distantly related, from the brother-in-law who sells the Carsons the car to the cousin who doubles as their lawyer. The midwife (Molly Parker) was at fault and now Boston wants her blood. Martha, for her part, just wants what was lost: her marriage and her daughter.

Viewed as an acting masterclass, the film is bruisingly impressive in its way. The principal actors raise the roof; each gets to do their big turn for the camera. But it feels a little schooled, a little staged, like a workshop at the Actors’ Studio; this impression isn’t helped by the over-insistent score, which drops like a lead weight after each full-throated exchange. If Mundruczó’s aim is to lead us through the depths of agony and despair, then we need to feel the couple’s pain in our guts; I never did, quite. Out in frozen Boston, Sean has started self-medicating again, beating a path back to the fags, booze and cocaine as a means of numbing himself against the horror-show of his life. It’s working for him; maybe it is for us, too. When Mundruczó puts in the knife, it registers as a dull throb.



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