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Widows (2018) written and directed by Steve McQueen

Crime and political machinations in the Windy City

This adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s 1983 Britsh TV miniseries of the same name is set in contemporary Chicago. A team of four professional thieves, led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), make off with a large sum of money belonging to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss who is running for senator against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). When they reach their hideout after the heist they are attacked by a police armed response unit, resulting in the van (containing the money) going up in a fireball and the four men being killed.

Needless to say, Jamal isn’t too happy about this and both himself and his younger brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) decide to put the screws on Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) and coerce her into making up for their monetary loss. When Veronica discovers that Harry’s notebook contains plans for a subsequent heist - this time on the offices of Jack Mulligan - she decides to track down the widows of her late husband’s three cohorts in order to put it into action. Two of them, Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), who are already in their own considerable financial difficulties after the loss of their own respective husbands, agree to team up with her.

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Does it live up to the original?

Steve McQueen had certainly set himself an ambitious task when he chose to put his personal stamp on a TV miniseries which ran to nearly five hours in length via turning it into a film version which runs for less than half of that time. Does he succeed? Well, the short answer is “yes”. The longer answer, however, would include the caveat “…for the most part, albeit it would arguably have been even better if he had simply remade it as another miniseries”.

While the individual parts here are better than the whole, these parts are fantastic enough that the whole can never be less than a compelling watch - even if it is an imperfect one. The cast here is a bona fide coup. The film’s star is, of course, Viola Davis, who is on such incendiary and emotive form that she even upstages the cute West Highland terrier which she carries around through a sizeable proportion of the runtime. She’s ably supported by Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki, making up an engaging trio of tough women who have been beaten down by circumstances yet are determined to fight back. Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell chew up the scenery via their hard-nosed father and son dynamic within a bloodline of unscrupulous politicians. Brian Tyree Henry and (especially) Daniel Kaluuya bring plenty of composed menace to their roles as two coldly ruthless gangster brothers. Lukas Haas also stands out as the affluent businessman whom Alice is forced to date for money. He’s spot-on as the kind of pseudo-nice-in-a-creepy-way guy who sees women as commodities to be kept in the gilded cages which he forges for them.

Liam Neeson and Viola Davis in Widows

Steve McQueen’s writing and direction also frequently shine. He stages scenes with inventive flair; the opening and closing heists are textbook examples of impeccably-crafted action, a gangland execution setpiece featuring a rotating camera and two characters performing a rap song (yes, really!) is a left-field masterclass in pure tension, and a clandestine conversation within a limo filmed from outside the vehicle cleverly conveys a sense of the machinations of the wealthy occurring away from public view. While technically rather showy, such scenes always have a sense of being deliberately crafted in a manner which serves the underlying narrative thrust, rather than a mere excuse for gratuitous flashiness.

The characterisations also purposefully cut across class, ethnic and gender lines, offering a stark portrayal of a divided Trump-era America. The three main female protagonists here are all from ethnic minorities (black, Latino and Polish) but must rely on white males in order to stay above the gutter. Their heist becomes their de facto bid for autonomy. Moreover, even when the wealthy men aren’t overt gangster types by trade, they still resort to self-serving or outright criminal tactics in order to assert their dominance.

Unfortunately, there’s also an intermittent sense that McQueen has bitten off more than he can chew in terms of nurturing the different story strands. A few of these are difficult to follow or engage with because the audience is only provided with fleeting fragments, bereft of any real closure with the characters or their relationships. We get a sense that Farrell’s Jack Mulligan harbours some reluctance towards staying on a ruthless career path despite the constant hectoring of his firebrand father and his Lady Macbeth-styled partner Siobhan (played by Molly Kunz). However, this aspect is treated more as a vignette than the richly-developed subplot that it might have amounted to. The flashbacks involving the character of Harry Rawlings, while crucial to some important plot twists, also feel somewhat awkwardly inserted.

The way in which the film’s “fourth widow” aspect is developed is even more problematic. In effect, there are two of them here: Amanda (Carrie Coon) who has also lost their husband in the heist, and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) whose husband is killed by the antagonists later on in the story. However, the former is an entirely marginal and forgettable character. In the latter case, meanwhile, we never get any real sense of an onscreen bond between herself and her husband. In fact, I was quite puzzled as to her purpose in the plot until I read the Wikipedia article clarifying this. When the characters and their relationships aren’t always clearly defined it’s a sure sign that there is room for improvement in terms of storytelling.

Still, whatever its flaws, Widows emerges as a well-crafted action-drama with enough of a socially-conscious edge to lend palpable substance to its considerable style.

Runtime: 129 mins

Dir: Steve McQueen

Script: Steve McQueen, Gillian Flynn, from a TV miniseries written by Lynda La Plante

Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Molly Kunz, Lukas Haas, Garret Dillahunt

Rating: ☆☆☆1/2

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