(director: Kornél Mundruczó; screenwriter: Kata Wéber; cinematographer: Benjamin Loeb; editor: Dávid Jancsó; music: Howard Shore; cast: Vanessa Kirby (Martha), Shia LaBeouf (Sean),  Ellen Burstyn (Elizabeth), Molly Parker (Eva), Sarah Snook (Suzanne), Benny Safdie (Chris), Iliza Shlesinger (Anita), Jimmie Fails (Max); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Kevin Turin/Aaron Ryder/Ashley Levinson; Netflix; 2020-Canada/Hungary/USA)

“Challenging but unconvincing childbirth drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó (“Jupiter’s Moon”/”White God”) in his first English-language film directs this challenging but unconvincing childbirth drama. It’s written with his usual writer, his real-life partner, Kata Weber. The filmmaker sets it in Boston (it was filmed in Quebec). It’s the kind of psychological film that Ingmar Bergman might have enjoyed directing.

Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are a young couple hit by a tragedy that they have to learn how to face together. The film opens with a thirty-minute harrowing prologue that’s an emotional childbirth scene that’s not for the queasy. The single-shot shows Martha’s baby girl born alive and then suddenly dying. It’s a powerful sequence. The film after this great start flounders the rest of the way.

The midwife chosen is a no show because she’s with another client. Eva (Molly Parker) is her last-minute replacement when Martha goes into labor at home. When things go horribly wrong and the baby dies, Martha goes into shock. Sean, a recovering addict, tries to hold in his grief. Soon after the death is confirmed, Martha’s lawyer cousin Suzanne (Sarah Snook) is asked by Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), Martha’s wealthy mother
, who always believes she’s right, to file a civil suit against the midwife, and the lawyer seems confident she will win in court both on criminal and civil charges.

The oafish Sean is a blue-collar construction engineer on a bridge being built in the city. His partner Martha comes from a more affluent background. Her controlling Hungarian Jewish mother Elizabeth as a child escaped the Holocaust, and now in old age is in the first stages of dementia. Mom pisses off the proud Sean,
who wants no gifts from someone he knows doesn’t care for him, especially expensive ones such as Martha’s expensive car from her car-dealer son-in-law Chris (Benny Safdie, an actor/director).

The film follows Martha and Sean for a year after the tragedy, and it tests the couple to see if they can stay together as they go through insufferable conversations over their guilt.

The courtroom scenes that ensue don’t work (they’re too much here and seem for another movie). Also the characters never convinced me they were for real.

But it’s a gripping tearjerker because the excellent cast makes it work despite its contrivances.
Vanessa Kirby gives a heartfelt and unflinching performance, one that captivated me throughout.