From the moment I watched the trailer for Pieces of a Woman, I knew that as a writer in the maternal health space, it was a timely “must-add” to my watch list. I also knew, however, that as a woman who hopes to one day be a wife and a mother (and has yet to become either), it was going to be a really tough one for me to get through. And I’ll be honest – once I finally sat down to watch it alone, I ended up choosing to split the movie into three acts and take it in doses. Because it’s raw, it’s real, and it’s the kind of story that anyone would refuse to let their mind envision living through, unless you have been forced to live through it.
I watched the first 20 minutes of Pieces of a Woman, which do not shy away from depicting labor and home birth as graphically as a for-Netflix movie can, in equal parts awe and terror. With what I know about giving birth, both from work and through stories told to me over drinks by family and friends, the idea of one day having that experience for myself frankly horrifies me. I know I’m supposed to say it’s this beautiful, magical thing (and for many people it really is!), but I don’t think that’s how it will be for me. I don’t think I’ll be brave, or calm, or transcendent, but I’ll get through it. So that I can finally hold the baby I made in my arms, alongside a partner who supported me through it all, deepening our love for one another beyond measure in the process. Shia LeBeouf’s Sean played the role of level-headed and attentive first-time birthing partner beautifully, anticipating the needs of Vanessa Kirby’s Martha with each contraction. In those stunning opening scenes, I dared to affirm that that is what I will do it for one day. And then, before I was ready, that certain feeling was suddenly, devastatingly taken away from me with the loss of their baby girl and the subsequent dissolution of their loving union.
Which is exactly the point, I know, and I commend what the film’s cast, writer, and director successfully achieved. For the two hours I spent watching Pieces of a Woman and for all the time it spent haunting me during my watch and after, I, someone who has never given birth nor experienced the unimaginable pain that comes with the death of a child, was asked to look at what that kind of heart-shattering loss could look like. And once I got past the shock and the sadness of knowing that, for many, Kirby’s stirring portrayal of a grieving childless mother was and is a version of their reality, it stirred in me the needful reminder that, because love and life are not guaranteed, that makes them all the more deserving of protection and respect.
That being said, I think Netflix missed a major mark with Pieces of a Woman. I understand that the tragic aftermath and gradual healing from a home birth gone wrong is the story Pieces of a Woman is trying to tell, but did it have to be? There’s another story here that deserved the space and platform that a star-studded, streaming service movie provides. One that gripped me more profoundly than the unraveling of Martha and Sean’s marriage, yet it barely got any screen time. And that is the story of the midwife.
The couple’s back-up midwife Eva, adeptly portrayed by Molly Parker, is at the crux of Pieces of a Woman’s drama and blamed for the death of their newborn daughter, but presently only in the wings of the film’s narrative progression. Eva, and the criminal case against her, is mentioned often throughout the 2-hour film, but all we learn about the complex character is given to us in the home birth scene itself. She appears again at the end of the film, but only so that she can sob in relief as Martha can absolve her of fault before a jury of her peers.
From the film’s home birth sequence, we learn that Eva is experienced in her profession, she cares for her clients, and is mother to a young girl herself. We know that while she wasn’t expected to be present for Martha’s labor, she was on call and ready to be there in minutes as a replacement of the midwife who was unable to attend. When she observed signs of distress, she tried to get mother and baby to the safety of a hospital; when Sean and Martha’s newborn baby’s health was failing, she tried to save her life. We’ll never know if she performed her duties perfectly or if there’s something else she could have done to save the baby’s life, but to the best of her ability she gave and she cared and she tried. And the film and its characters, up until the end, told us to hate her in spite of that. While a hospital would have been protected in this case, Eva was not, and we as an audience were never challenged to empathize with her side of the experience nor how the loss and subsequent trial changed her life.
Why not, between Sean and Martha’s scenes of infidelity and abuse and the heavy-handed subplot of Martha’s mother’s diminishing memory, show us the ways in which Eva’s world was forever altered? Rather than making the criminal trial an off-screen plot device, why not place it at the center of the action? Though the story zoomed in on Martha’s life after losing her daughter, Eva stood to lose her daughter as a result of the home birth, too. I would have loved to get to know the pieces of Eva.
Furthermore, I can’t help but feel like a huge opportunity to highlight the lack of protections and resources in place for midwives was rather irresponsibly missed. Midwives and their work have long been ostracized in this country, and as they were turned to in record numbers during the pandemic as expectant parents sought birth options outside of a hospital setting, it became clearer than ever that systemic change is necessary if a readily increasing demand for midwives is to actually be sustained and supported. Why, on the heels of that unprecedented strain, after 2020 was dubbed The Year of the Midwife, cast off Eva as a “criminal” or a “swindler” – the villain of this story. I wish Pieces of a Woman would have trusted and challenged its audience enough to make them an extension of the jury’s trial, but that would have required the film to actually educate on what the practice and profession of midwifery truly is, and why they remain vulnerable today.