Reviewed by Lee Hill
After winning the Best Picture for 12 Years A Slave in 2014, expectations for Steve McQueen’s next feature were high. The news that McQueen was going to remake a well regarded, but distantly recalled 1983 ITV mini-series by Lynda LaPlante seemed a tad perverse (would this be his At Long Last Love or 1941?). However, McQueen and his co-writer, Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn have, for the most part, successfully transformed the original “gangsters’ wives pull off heist” premise to tap into our current preoccupations with race, gender equality and the general cynicism, if not outright contempt, towards politics as usual.
Set in a Chicago riddled by racial and political tension, Widows begins with a bravura prologue that would not be out of place in a Michael Mann film. As teachers union leader, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) enjoys a romantic moment with her career criminal husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), we cross-cut to Harry and his gang racing in a van through the city streets with police in hot pursuit. Clearly the best laid plans of a genius robber and his merry band have gone wrong. This prologue culminates in a warehouse shootout with a SWAT team and an explosion that kills the gang and reduces to the loot to ash. In the aftermath, Veronica soon discovers she not only shares grief, but a debt – the lost booty belonged to a former gangster running for alderman, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henning) – with the other wives. Jamal is competing for the big brass ring with the incumbent Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) and his sleazy faux Kennedy aspirant of a son, Jack (Colin Farrell).
With time running out on the deadline to pay back her debt, Veronica forms an alliance with the other widows. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) discovers her wedding dress business is now collateral for her husband’s gambling debts. While Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), once the stay at home wife of her abusive husband, navigates the deadening terrain of being an on-call girlfriend to a creepy entrepreneur (Lukas Haas). With access to Harry’s notebook mapping out a future heist, this trio embarks on the risky challenge of a complex theft, but escaping from the largely male dominated world they have accommodated for too long.
As my potted synopsis above suggests, Widows packs (and occasionally struggles) to pack a lot of story as well as subtext into its 2 hour and eight minute running time. McQueen and Flynn weave in comments about the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and the failure of traditional political structures to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. The first half of the film does a compelling job of building a portrait of women joining together to transcend an unforgiving socio-economic landscape. However, Widows is less successful at showing us how these women will actually pull off the caper. For all of McQueen’s ambition, the minutiae of pulling off a seemingly impossible robbery against brutal and powerful opponents is a tad vague. They get some guns, find some blueprints and prove they can carry heavy bags of money, but these details feel sketchy as the big day approaches. Where Lynda LaPlante had the luxury of six episodes to build tension, this remake feels more than a little wobbly as it races towards its denouement.
Despite some opaque plotting battling with pieces of unnecessary backstory, there is a lot to enjoy in Widows. Everyone in the cast is working at the top of their game (and Liam Neeson never once says “I will find you…”), the widescreen cinematography by Sean Bobbitt adds a hyper-realism to proceedings and if the bigger messages about women, race and America don’t quite get delivered, the ellipses are smoothed over thanks to Joe Walker’s brisk editing. Widows may be thinking person’s fast food in the final analysis, but it has the virtue of encouraging debate once the meal is over.
Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay by McQueen and Gillian Flynn based on the television series by Lynda LaPlante.
Opens at the London Film Festival and on general release in the UK from 6 November.