Awards Analysis: Well-Acted 'Pieces of a Woman' a Tough Sell

Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in 'Pieces of a Woman'
Courtesy of TIFF

Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in 'Pieces of a Woman'

The most unusual Oscar season in history launched on Wednesday with the opening of the 77th Venice International Film Festival, complete with facemasks on the red carpet. With this season's finish line — the Oscars ceremony itself — pushed back two months to April 2021, there are, perhaps, fewer awards hopefuls at the fall film fests. But there are still some, not all of which are arriving on the Lido with distribution but are perhaps hoping to leverage awards buzz to gain it.

An interesting case will be Pieces of a Woman, the first English-language feature from the Hungarian White Dog director Kornél Mundruczó, which was written by his wife Kata Wéber and is, according to the director's statement posted on the fest's website, inspired by "one of our most personal experiences." The drama, which had its world premiere at the fest on Saturday and will next screen as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, centers on a young Boston couple — played by Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf — who, over the course of a gutwrenching 30-minute one-shot pre-title sequence, lose their child moments after it is born, and then spend the rest of the movie struggling to move on.

As The Hollywood Reporter's review by David Rooney indicates, this is an extremely well-acted film, particularly by Kirby, a Lady Gaga look-alike who is best known for playing Princess Margaret on the first two seasons of The Crown and for starring opposite Tom Cruise in the most recent Mission: Impossible film, and who is also the star of another film in this year's Venice lineup, Mona Fastvold's The World to Come. She gives a largely internal performance but one can't take one's eyes off of her, and I suspect the Academy's actors branch would be impressed.

Additionally noteworthy, as always, is grand dame Ellen Burstyn, in a part that is underwritten but highlighted by her powerful delivery of a monologue that is overwritten and yet elevated by her artistry. She is the kind of performer who — and that is the kind of scene that — fellow actors, in particular, take notice of. And she has been (Emmy) nominated for far less.

But, as Rooney's review also acknowledges, it is hard to imagine who the audience is for a two-plus-hour film as oppressively dark as this one, which sometimes feels better suited for the stage (think Eugene O'Neill) than the screen, and which, beyond its impeccable performances, is a bit clunky (the courtroom scene) and heavyhanded when it comes to metaphors (bridges, apple seeds, etc.).

The Academy hasn't recognized many very dark films about grief (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Ordinary People are among the most celebrated examples), but when it does it tends to recognize one standout performance — for example, in 2011 Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams were both best actress Oscar nominees for Rabbit Hole and Blue Valentine, respectively, for which no other nominations were accorded. More often than not, though, the Academy takes a pass altogether on such films — even in 2012, when We Need to Talk About Kevin's Tilda Swinton was nominated for SAG, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Critics' Choice awards, the Academy did not follow suit.

If the film, which counts Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, gets picked up and released this Oscar season, Kirby could wind up in the mix. Also deserving of serious consideration would be the great Howard Shore for a gorgeous (if overemphasized) score and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb for the aforementioned oner.