Shia LeBeouf as Sean and Vanessa Kirby as Martha in ‘Pieces of a Woman’
Shia LeBeouf as Sean and Vanessa Kirby as Martha in ‘Pieces of a Woman’ © Netflix

Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star in the hectic melodrama Pieces of a Woman, a film so filled with their performances as to reduce all else to second billing. Prepare for mixed feelings. As a study of the black hole of loss — specifically, the loss of a baby — the movie has moments that are almost overwhelming. The trouble is, there are other moments. Many other moments.

Kirby is Martha, one half of a blissed-out young Boston couple. We meet her as she departs her job (generic high-flyer) on maternity leave. Her bump is huge; a plastic baby adorns the cake. Her partner is Sean, a garrulous construction worker played by LaBeouf. “Martha’s fine,” he tells a co-worker. “She’s always fine.” The pair head home in their pristine new people carrier. Sean unwraps the picture frame bought for baby photographs. Never introduce a gun in your first act, Chekhov said, unless it is to be fired later. For now you can barely hear over director Kornel Mundruczo loading bullets. Yet the leads are good enough to distract you, LaBeouf and Kirby each abuzz with optimism. (Although the presence of LaBeouf onscreen brings its own complications, the actor now formally accused of abusive behaviour towards an ex-partner, singer FKA Twigs.)

Kirby is better yet in the raw, extraordinary centrepiece of the film, a near verité home birth played out over 24 traumatic minutes. You may soon recall the medical truism that new mothers are hard-wired to forget the experience of labour, or else they would never do it again. By the end, everyone on set must have been left emotionally tattered, the actress most of all. The scene climbs to the highest diving board. It demands the rest of the film is equal to it.

It is not. Martha is soon a portrait of disconnection, frozen in place — but the movie careers down one soapy tangent after another. There is family intrigue, adultery, dementia, memories of the Holocaust. Most confused of all is a legal case against the couple’s midwife, wheeled in and out of the story like a hostess trolley. The effect is maddening. The film ends up the wrong way round — as if the mournful energy created by Mundruczo and writer Kata Weber were just a pretext for the overboiled spaghetti of a plot. Finally, even the acting feels hokey by association. Bad news for a film involving this much of it. Should we be moved? Or merely impressed?

★★★☆☆

On Netflix from January 7

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