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The British actress, best known for her turn as Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown and supporting roles in Hobbs & Shaw and the Mission: Impossible franchise, wowed the Venice arthouse crowd with her performances in competition titles Pieces of a Woman and The World To Come.
Based on the critical response to the two films over the weekend, Kirby has shot straight into the frontrunner status for the best actor honors, to be handed out here in Venice Sept. 12.
Kirby shot Pieces of a Woman and The World to Come back-to-back in late 2019 and early 2020, but the characters are poles apart and as different from one another as they are from glam action roles —femme fatale gunrunner the White Widow in Mission: Impossible, the butt-kicking sister to Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw in Hobbs & Shaw— that have made Kirby’s name in Hollywood.
In Pieces of a Woman, Kirby plays Martha, a mother devastated by the death of her daughter in a homebirth gone horribly wrong who struggles to deal with her personal trauma as well as the reaction to the death from her husband (Shia LaBeouf) and mother (Ellen Burstyn), who want to sue the midwife (Molly Parker) for criminal negligence causing the child’s death. In the period romance The World to Come, Kirby plays Tallie, a woman who initiates a forbidden, and for the time and place —the 19th-century American frontier—nearly impossible love affair with her neighbor Abigail (Katherine Waterston).
Both were well-received by the Venice critics, who have already anointed Kirby their next queen of indie cinema.
“The remarkable Kirby gives a tough performance,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter‘s chief film critic David Rooney on her turn in Pieces of a Woman, “bleeding beneath her armor-plated guard but refusing to soften Martha’s abrasive sides as she undertakes the isolating work of learning to live with her loss.”
Of her performance in The World to Come, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Jon Frosch notes that Kirby “is a marvel, radiant and haunting…The actress conveys more with a slightly cocked eyebrow and clench of the jaw than most do with an entire face-full of emoting.”
Spanish critic Manu Yanez, writing for film magazine Fotogramas, compared Kirby’s “terrifying tête à tête” with Burstyn in the climactic scene of Pieces of a Woman to something out of the best of August Strindberg or Tracy Letts.
The theatrical reference is telling. Pieces of a Woman may be a sharp departure from Hobbs & Shaw or M:I but it is of a piece with Kirby’s theater work, which has included playing Queen Isabella in Edward II, Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Julie in Polly Stenham’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie for the National Theatre in 2018.
“I think there are many, many great female roles on stage and now cinema is making more space for these kinds of female performances,” Kirby said, speaking at the press conference in Venice for The World to Come. “My great inspirations are Gena Rowlands and Jessica Lange —women from that era who did these difficult, complicated, often dark performances. I want to try and continue with these kinds of roles, with performances that are scary to approach.”
Pieces of a Woman director Kornél Mundruczó compares Kirby —who he said he previously only knew from her role in The Crown —to melodramatic masters Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygulla. “That sort of 1970s, early 80s, classic actress, who have a strong personality, but who also can tell a story with their quietness. When I saw that, I was like: ‘it’s her. She’s my Martha.’
Pieces of a Woman marks Kirby’s first onscreen leading role. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film’s Venice premiere, Kirby said she “felt ready to lead a movie for a long time but to actually do it was such a gift. Now that I’ve done it, it feels like a new stage for me.”
It remains to be seen whether festival buzz here in Venice will translate into an Oscar run for Kirby for either Pieces of a Woman or The World to Come. Mona Fastvold’s period drama might appeal to the same contingent that got behind LGBT-themed historic tales The Favourite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But the stark and slow-paced drama, which co-stars Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbot, could have trouble translating to home viewing and may require further festival support to get on the awards radar. The World to Come moves to San Sebastian following its Venice bow but will skip Toronto, meaning few North American critics will see it on the big screen.
Pieces of a Woman enters this season’s unusual awards race with the imprimatur of a Martin Scorcese executive producer credit and the indie cache of director/screenwriter team Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Weber, whose White God won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2014. But, as The Hollywood Reporter‘s awards analyst Scott Feinberg has noted, the very aspects of Pieces of a Woman that appealed to the Venice critics —its theatricality and dark storyline—could prove a “tough sell” to Academy voters.
But the Oscars aren’t the only measure of success or recognition. Vanessa Kirby isn’t giving up her action franchise roles anytime soon —she’s set to resume shooting on Mission: Impossible 7 later this month and will return for M:I 8—but Venice 2020 could mark a turning point in her career.
Shooting Pieces of a Woman and The World to Come left her with a feeling of “great responsibility,” Kirby said. The responsibility to show female characters on screen that “women can relate to, that they see part of themselves in [it has] made me even more passionate to have the faith to tell more female stories, stories that haven’t been told on screen before.”
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