It’s hard to imagine that any woman in the academy who has been pregnant won’t nominate Vanessa Kirby for her affecting, unsentimental performance as an expectant Boston mother who survives her worst nightmare in the Netflix release “Pieces of a Woman.”
Kirby, whom American audiences will remember for her saucy turn as the flamboyantly frustrated Princess Margaret in seasons one and two of “The Crown,” plays Martha Weiss. Expecting her first child — the phrase “It’s a girl” is written on the celebratory cake served at an office party before she takes maternity leave — Martha and her partner Sean (Shia LaBoeuf) opt for a home birth but nothing will work out as planned. The midwife she thought would deliver her baby is suddenly unavailable. Martha’s already in a fraught labor when a substitute midwife, Eva Woodward (Molly Parker), is dispatched. There’s still reason to hope for the best: The baby’s heartbeat is strong. At first. Shortly before Martha delivers the baby, though, the heartbeat grows fainter and the midwife instructs Sean to call 911. Little Yvette is born blue.
How’s that for a first half hour?
In this moody, bleakly absorbing film that hearkens back to such 1970s gems as “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” Martha becomes numb from that point on, withdrawing so she can mourn and heal. She packs up the contents of the baby’s room. Intimate contact with Sean ceases. Her behavior is a mystery to her family and to herself. With Eva on trial for manslaughter, Martha’s day in court approaches and the film asks the question, Will Martha seek retribution? Her mother, Holocaust survivor Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), wants justice for the midwife’s incompetence but Martha doesn’t share her zeal. What would a conviction prove? “There might be a reason why this happened,” Martha tells the court, tears rolling down her cheeks, “but you’re not going to find it here in this room….I can’t be compensated. How can I give this pain to someone else?”
The academy loves characters that make noble gestures despite their own personal pain so that courtroom scene could be Kirby’s Oscar moment. She won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival (the movie was also awarded Best Film) and she seems a lock for a Best Actress nomination. The academy has a penchant for giving its top acting honors to Brits (Olivia Colman won a few years ago for “The Favourite,” surprisingly beating out the favorite, Glenn Close of “The Wife”) and her quietly disturbing work recalls Charlotte Rampling’s masterful slow simmer in “45 Years” in 2015.
Some of Kirby’s best scenes are with six-time nominee Burstyn, whose character painfully recalls her horrible World War II childhood and urges Martha to speak her truth to the midwife at the trial. Burstyn, 88, is a revered veteran who has been owed a second Oscar since the academy overlooked her gut-wrenching performance in “Requiem for a Dream” in 2001, and is likely to get her seventh nomination and very possibly take Best Supporting Actress.
Gold Derby’s experts currently give Kirby 5-to-1 odds for Best Actress, or third place behind previous winners Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”). Burstyn is currently in fourth place for Best Supporting Actress with 11-to-2 odds.
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