With contenders like Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Carey Mulligan and Frances McDormand, it might surprise you to hear that it is actually British newcomer Vanessa Kirby who is the frontrunner for best actress at the upcoming Academy Awards.

Maybe newcomer isn’t fair because you have probably seen her as Princess Margaret on “The Crown.” She was and will again play The White Widow in the “Mission Impossible” franchise, and she even appeared in “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.”

The first 20 minutes of “Pieces of a Woman” is what most will hang on to; it’s a seemingly long take of an at-home birth that’s unsettling and anxiety-ridden thanks to Kirby’s medical-professional-applauded, realistic performance.

“Pieces of a Woman” is a film about grief, acceptance and forgiveness. Kirby’s groundbreaking turn is supported by Oscar nominee Ellen Burstyn and Shia LaBeouf, building on his career-changing 2019 work.

Following a tragic loss, Martha (Kirby) and her partner Sean (LaBeouf) can’t find a way to move forward. Their entire relationship until this point was built on their future as parents. They feel robbed, in a way that can’t be fixed. Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), demands they seek justice through the court system.

Every child at the supermarket, every pass by the empty nursery, every meaningless conversation all add to this rising frustration Martha doesn’t know how to alleviate. Sean copes in his own destructive ways, tormented by sobriety and his need for compassion and intimacy that Martha is no longer able to give.

Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó elevates “Pieces of a Woman” to more than just a performance film. Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography, the fluidity in which the camera moves in the opening moments capture so much of what Kirby is giving us. That same creativity isn’t present as much in the latter part of the film, but the impression remains.

Kata Wéber, a frequent collaborator/partner with Mundruczó, crafts the most intimate portrayal of a mother suffering from the loss of a child. For a drama that mostly stays away from narrative Americanized melodrama, “Pieces of a Woman” brings us a cold reality to the screen, one that is not easily mastered. The bleakness of winter, the unglamorized setting of Boston and Howard Shore’s noteworthy score all reinforce what’s being accomplished here.

LaBeouf’s snub last year for “Honey Boy” will hopefully be paid forward with a nomination here, another example of the actor’s changed era. Oscar winner Burstyn hasn’t been nominated since 2001’s “Requiem for a Dream.” She too might find herself back in consideration as the cruel mother who is constantly overstepping.

It’s a difficult film to watch because of the subject matter, but the editing and dramatic narrative keep our attention. Every scene and moment on screen is a piece that’s either rebuilt or discarded for something else, and by the end the audience takes away some semblance of a journey with Martha — for better or worse.

Final Thought: Kirby’s award-worthy performance will leave perennial contenders in the dust.

Dustin Chase is a film critic and associate editor with Texas Art & Film, which is based in Galveston. Visit texasartfilm.com.

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