Writer: Gillian Flynn
Director: Steve McQueen
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
There are still only a handful of directors who can open a movie with their name alone, and with only three previous films, Steve McQueen is one of them, a rare film-maker whose every release is a major event. McQueen has a long relationship with the London Film Festival premiering Hunger in 2008, Shamein 2011 and 12 Years a Slave in 2013 in his hometown, so it is entirely fitting that his latest movie Widows is the 2018 Festival opener.
For the man who brought us the violent story of the Maze Prison in 1981 and Bobby Sands fatal hunger strike, the emotionless desperation of the sex addict in twenty-first century New York and the true story of wrongful enslavement in the nineteenth-century deep south, an adaption of a Lynda La Plante mini-series may seem like an odd choice. And while the action-packed Widows may feel like McQueen is moving his work in a new direction, his management of tone and the meaningful use of cinematography is incredibly consistent with his previous work.
The film opens with a fast-paced getaway already in progress in which a band of thieves led by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) come to a sticky end having stolen £2 million from another criminal gang, intercut with romantic scenes with his wife Veronica (Viola Davis). The gang want their money back, threatening Veronica and her fellow widows forcing them to plan and execute a heist of their own. But Chicago is a dangerous place, and with corrupt politicians, violent henchmen and their own hatred of each other stacked against them, this job won’t be as straightforward as they think.
This isn’t the first time an all-female heist movie has been made – the recent Ocean’s 8for example – but Widows is no jaunty crime caper. It may follow many of the heist-movie conventions, forming the gang, finding the equipment and the inevitable bit where things go wrong, but McQueen actively subverts the genre by honing in on the personal while combining it with a broader political view. This incredible balancing act gives Widows its firepower, making it gripping entertainment and a pointed social statement.
Most heist films are all about greed, men stealing for the fun of it, but here the three protagonists, Veronica, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who barely knew each other before, need to clear up their dead husbands’ mess while navigating a new reality that has left each of them with nothing. McQueen’s gift is to draw the audience into each of their stories, making you root for them, despite their choices, in an unforgiving city. The snarly Linda has lost her shop and needs to find a way to keep her family afloat, the naïve but resigned Alice is forced into a new relationship, while the wealthier Veronica may be expensively tailored but struggles to manage her grief.
McQueen uses plenty of visual clues throughout the film to help the audience navigate the emotional, social and political struggles of the characters. Veronica lives in a cold and blank apartment, with large floor-to-ceiling windows and modern amenities, reminiscent of Brandon’s flat in Shame, suggesting a lifestyle rather than a place of real truth. Meanwhile, the sharp punches of violence draw on the riot scenes in Hunger that create both shock and sympathy while building-up a complex tension that drives the narrative.
McQueen repeatedly draws our attention to wealth and deprivation living side-by-side in Chicago, and one scene takes us from a run-down wasteland where politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) is making a speech, to his large, gated family home a short drive away. The director keeps us on the outside of the car, like eavesdroppers able to take in the rapidly changing streets. Likewise, the golden warmth and ease of the cocktail bar that Alice visits contrasts so cleverly with the shabby bar-room and bowling alley owned by an informant where you can almost feel the sticky floor, while the various homes and businesses focus on the lot of working women trying to keep their heads above water.
Davis is outstanding as Veronica who takes firm control of the heist as a business proposition rather than a chance to make friends, but never allows anyone to see the raw underbelly. Debicki’s Alice is equally fascinating, downtrodden by rotten relationships and unable to envisage any skill beyond her beauty, while Rodriguez is a stern but determined presence as the third member of the gang. But McQueen never lets us forget that this is a man’s world, full of corruption and self-interest. Colin Farrell is excellent as the reluctant politico Mulligan, hamstrung by his belligerent father’s dynastic legacy (Robert Duvall), while Daniel Kaluuya is genuinely terrifying as psychotic henchman to Brian Tyree Henry’s crime boss turned electoral candidate.
Widows may be over two hours long, but this is more than a well-told story, not a scene is wasted, everything you see and hear contributes to the wider narrative that McQueen presents – the heist itself becomes almost secondary to this snapshot of inequality, racism and deprivation. This may only be McQueen’s fourth release, but Widows is exciting and tense, raw and complex, with considerable craft in every single moment.
Release Date 6 November 2018 | Image: Merrick Morton/AP