It was going to be nearly impossible for Vanessa Kirby to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her incredible performance as Martha in Pieces of a Woman. Kirby was the only part of the film nominated. And despite being the only other actress outside of Frances McDormand to be nominated for every precursor award, she left award season empty handed. Despite the uphill battle, the Oscar should have been hers, in my humble opinion.
Acting is a very weird profession. Regardless of life experience, you somehow must convince yourself you understand something you have never lived. In Kirby’s case, there was a lot of research needed. Not only does she have to convincingly give birth, filling up the first 30 minutes of the film with a condensed childbirth scene, she then must embody the grief that follows with infant loss. It is a huge undertaking and Kirby knocked it out of the park.
Prior to its premiere on Netflix, all people could talk about was the 30-minute birth scene. It is a visceral single-take that is so raw, it will make you squirm in your seat. Kirby previously discussed going to a North London birthing center to shadow midwives. On her last day, a woman graciously allowed her to be in the room while giving birth. That experience became the foundation for one of the most harrowing and unrestrained moments in recent cinematic history.
From there, the performance and film take a dramatic shift. The pains of labor are quickly shifted into the pains of loss. Child loss remains an incredibly taboo subject. Statistically speaking, one in four pregnancies end in pregnancy loss, and the infant mortality rate, as documented in 2019, was 5.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. Any type of loss can be an isolating experience, but there is something additionally alienating about experiencing a loss no one wants to speak about.
Kirby’s outwardly emotional performance rapidly shifts to one that is more internal. A quiet and internal performance requires a lot of heavy lifting from the actor. Large emotions, showy antics cannot be used. You must balance an ability to draw the audience in while preserving your character’s armor. There are small touches Kirby adds to her performance from the long walks in silence to the heartbroken and loving examination of children she encounters.
There are two scenes in this part of the film that are more outwardly emotional. The first, and the one more widely hailed as the pinnacle scene of the film, is an outburst she has at her mother, played by Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn. It is the explosion of everything she has been containing throughout the film. We have witnessed Martha’s mother belittle her throughout the film. And while the more apparent emotion we see is anger, Kirby understands that anger is the spokesperson for all the other emotions her character is feeling. That anger is a mixture of frustration at being expected to grieve in a certain manner, hurt for being blamed for her daughter’s death, shame because even if it’s just a smaller part of her she does believe she is partly at fault, and sadness for her child, for her life, for her future that all died that evening. It’s truly powerful.
But the later scene, the one that should have been her Oscar clip, encapsulates so much more than shouting ever could. In the scene, Kirby’s character goes to the trial of the midwife, portrayed by Molly Parker, who is being tried for the infant’s death. While testifying, Martha asks to address the court. After stating that she does not blame the midwife, she then states:
“There might be a reason for what happened, but we are not going to find it here in this room, and if I stand here and ask for compensation or money then I am saying that I can be compensated… and I can’t. I can’t bring her back. No money or verdicts or sentences can bring back what – how can I give this pain to someone else? Someone who has already suffered? And I know she would not want that. At all. That is not why my daughter came into this world for the time that she did.”
To me, this was the scene that gave us some closure to the emotional rollercoaster the audience was taken on. Kirby, through the mixture of pain and acceptance, embodied Martha’s journey and what she will carry with her moving forward in life. It is utterly moving and highlights the great depths Kirby can go to as a performer.
While she did not receive the Oscar for the performance, it will go down as an incredibly influential performance for years to come. The struggles and emotional hurdles Kirby faced with ease are nothing short of remarkable. When she is given the right material and challenging work, Kirby rises to the occasion, giving a haunting and breathtaking performance. This may have been her first Academy Award nomination, but I very much doubt it will be her last.