Vanessa Kirby in Venice

The Daily — Sep 9, 2020
Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman (2020)

Vanessa Kirby was a rapidly rising star of the British stage and had turned in a tidy collection of strong supporting performances in films by such disparate directors as Richard Curtis, John Boorman, Baltasar Kormákur, and the Wachowskis when she landed the role of Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of the hit Netflix series The Crown. Blockbusters followed, naturally: Mission: Impossible – Fallout in 2018 and last year’s Fast & Furious spin-off, Hobbs & Shaw. Now Kirby has arrived in Venice as the star of two films premiering in competition. Pieces of a Woman, directed by Kornél Mundruczó and written by Kata Wéber, has been met with mixed to favorable reviews, while praise for Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come has been close to unanimous.

In Pieces of a Woman, Kirby’s Martha works in a sleek office in Boston, has a seemingly solid relationship with her construction worker husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), and a far more strained one with her wealthy mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). She’s also pregnant and due any moment now. When she goes into labor, her midwife is wrapped up in a difficult birth and sends a replacement, Eva (Molly Parker), setting off an intense sequence captured in a single, meticulously blocked sequence. “There is not even a fake cut,” Mundruczó assures Geoffrey Macnab in Screen. “Decades from now, whether they love or hate the movie (it’s the kind that divides), audiences will still be talking about the virtuoso twenty-three-minute ‘oner,’” predicts Peter Debruge in Variety.

Several critics would agree with IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, who writes that Mundruczó’s “virtuosic movies tend to open like a house on fire only to spend the last two acts finger-painting with the ashes (see: White God, Jupiter’s Moon), and Pieces of a Woman is no exception.” The passages that follow that powerhouse opening introduce Martha’s cousin, Suzanne (Sarah Snook), a lawyer; Martha’s sister, Anita (Iliza Shlesinger); and her husband, Chris (Benny Safdie), a car salesman. “Viewed as an acting masterclass, the film is bruisingly impressive in its way,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “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.”

Pieces of a Woman does have a mighty strong champion, though, in Jessica Kiang. If, for the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, this drama is “so unflinching that its sunny coda feels almost like a betrayal,” Kiang argues at the Playlist that the film “dares to end in optimism, even in the aftermath of despair, because it understands how jealously we guard and nurture our grief when it feels like the only piece we have left of someone we loved. But equally it understands that sometimes, with borderline miraculous suddenness, when the sand in some invisible internal hourglass has finally run out, the grief itself will tell us that it’s time to let it go.”

While Pieces of a Woman is Mundruczó’s first film in English, The World to Come, Mona Fastvold’s second feature as a director, is the first she hasn’t written herself. That’s significant because Fastvold, who launched her career as a young actress in a few Norwegian television series, cowrote The Mustang (2919) with director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre as well as The Childhood of a Leader (2015) and Vox Lux (2018) with her partner, Brady Corbet. Jim Shepard wrote the short story that caught Fastvold’s eye and has cowritten The World to Come with Ron Hansen, the author of the 1983 novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which of course, was adapted in 2007 by Andrew Dominik.

The World to Come opens with a diary entry dated Tuesday, January 1, 1856. It’s read in voiceover narration by Katherine Waterston as Abigail, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with Dyer (Casey Affleck): “The water froze on the potatoes as soon as they were washed. With little pride, and less hope, we begin the new year.” The farm they work in Schoharie County, New York, has grown even more frigid since the loss of their young daughter to diphtheria.

New neighbors arrive: Tallie (Kirby) and her husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott), whose silence will become more menacing when Abigail and Tallie begin spending as much time together as they can steal. Kirby “gets to play the life-breathing force of this story, and is duly magnetic without giving in to whirling free-spirit cliché,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “Her Tallie may be more outspoken in her emotions than her neighbor, but she also wearily knows the score for women like her, seizing moments of freedom where she can and gritting her teeth for the rest. She duets beautifully with Waterston, who arguably has the harder task of guiding the audience through her cramped, slowly widening view of the world, and whose running voiceover handles the earthy poetics of Shepard and Hansen’s writing with aching care.”

Writing for Screen, Jonathan Romney suggests that “the script will be music to lovers of nineteenth-century American writing (Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton). As the two husbands, Affleck and Abbott contrast sharply—both playing deeply enclosed, solemn men, but of different emotional literacy, one with a capacity for moral generosity, the other shockingly without.” Romney also admires the “grainy texture of the images, combined with Jean Vincent Puzos’s meticulous design,” which “somewhat recalls the American period films (Meek’s Cutoff, First Cow) of Kelly Reichardt, with something of the severe grace of Terence Davies’s best work.” André Chemetoff shot the film, and the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin finds him “thrillingly attuned to both women’s interior states—his 16 mm images share a scratchy wilderness beauty with Vilmos Zsigmond’s work in Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and can shift moods in seconds from the austere to the goosebumpily personal.”

Fastvold and Corbet have already begun work on their next project, The Brutalist, a film that will track thirty years in the life of an architect in the mid-twentieth century. And they’ve lined up a stellar cast: Joel Edgerton, Marion Cotillard, Mark Rylance, Sebastian Stan, Isaach De Bankolé, Stacy Martin, and of course, Vanessa Kirby.

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