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Review: Emotionally wrenching 'Pieces of a Woman' tough to shake

Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star in tense drama about a couple dealing with the aftereffects of a traumatic childbirth

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

As far as openings go, they don't get much more visceral than the first 30 minutes of "Pieces of a Woman," director Kornél Mundruczó's raw, gripping look at grief and emotional trauma. 

In a stunning turn, Vanessa Kirby ("The Crown") plays Martha, a Massachusetts woman pregnant with her first child. She's married to Sean (Shia LaBeouf, reliably electrifying), and they're preparing for a home birth. 

Vanessa Kirby in "Pieces of a Woman."

The audience is not prepared, however, for what Mundruczó delivers.

In a harrowing sequence built around a bravura 20-minute single take, he stages a tense, triumphant, devastating scene around the birth, gripping in its intensity and spellbinding in its realism. Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb spins his camera around the actors and glides in and out of rooms inside the couple's apartment, making the viewer feel like a participant in the moment. Aided by Kirby's riveting performance, it's as unforgettable a sequence as has been pulled off since "Children of Men"; you don't watch it, you experience it, and it leaves you reeling in its wake. 

The rest of "Pieces of a Woman" has nowhere to go but down, so it's a credit to Mundruczó and the actors — especially Kirby, who is worthy of award consideration — that the ship never sinks. The film deals with the fallout from that opening sequence, and leads to several dramatic loose ends that are never sufficiently tied up. The framing of the storytelling (Kata Wéber's script unfolds in monthly chapters) shows the ways the characters are affected by the incident over time. The emotions are never any less than real, and those scars don't fade easily. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Pieces of a Woman'

GRADE: B

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

Running time: 127 minutes

On Netflix