Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, And Liam Neeson
Director: Steve McQueen
London Film Festival kicked off on Wednesday with Widows, a unique crime caper movie from Britain’s most successful contemporary filmmaker – Steve McQueen. Viola Davis, in the leading role, packs a punch and speaks straight to the #MeToo tenor of our times. The starry ensemble drama led by Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya and Robert Duvall (as Farrell’s scene-stealing authoritarian, racist retired politico father) is McQueen’s first foray into genre filmmaking. And it looks like that there is nothing that the Turner Prize, Oscar and BAFTA-award winning filmmaker can’t do. He directs Widows with such style, panache and impact that few other contemporaries can dare to match. McQueen once said he’d like to direct a Bond movie. On this evidence, only a fool would bet against that happening, and sooner rather than later.
Widows has its four leading ladies playing the eponymous bereaved wives and girlfriends of a set of high-end robber hubbies who all die in a taut, men-only heist-gone-wrong. The film gets off to such a cracking start, hard-cut — in McQueen’s singular way — with moments of love, shot elegantly from above, between union employee Davis and veteran thief Neeson, a seemingly happily-married couple. The widows — under duress from the gangsters-turned-politicians who Neeson and his gang have ripped off — try to pick up where the dead men left off. It soon becomes increasingly clear that the line-up of powerful men who stand in their way — politicians, gangsters, religious-leaders turned king-makers, and Daniel Kaluuya’s spine-tinglingly psychopathic gangster enforcer — have met the match to their machismo. In a world replete with toxic masculinity, it’s the women forced to play hard-ball, and play hard-ball they most certainly do.
On paper, Widows seems an unlikely foray into the crime caper/heist genre for a director who has previously made three deeply serious, and decidedly non-genre, feature films: Hunger (2008) about the IRA Hunger Strikes, Shame (2011) about sex addiction and, of course, the epic Best Picture Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013) about Antebellum slavery. Widows is a very different proposition indeed. It takes a classic 1983 British TV crime drama, created by Lynda La Plante (the queen of 80s and 90s British crime serieswho later went on to create the classic Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren) and transports the action from England to Chicago, adds a liberal parsing of contemporary social issues and a whole heap of fine acting, and comes up with something almost entirely new. Whichever way it reads on paper, on the screen McQueen pulls off his own daring escapade with such aplomb and style that even the occasional large leaps of faith that the plot and storyline demand from the audience seem a small price to pay for such delights.
The film is shot with the poetically-tinged eye of steel of McQueen’s usual Director of Photography Sean Bobitt, and co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, the author and screenwriter of Gone Girl. You can feel Flynn’s influence in the shape and shift of a snazzy script which has some great little twists as well as a dark humour that leave you smiling even amidst the building suspense and violence. Alongside the fine directing, great acting, and Bobitt’s lush colour-drenched cinematography, the whole film ripples with drama, tension and energy such that the two hours, nine minutes running time flies by.
Parsed through the film are a range of contemporary social issues around gender, race, politics, crime and corruption, all done with absolutely zero hint of worthy heavy-handedness. These themes and issues are so well sutured into the story-line that the film brings to mind the best of the old noir thriller classics from 40s & 50s Hollywood.
This sense of being wide awake to cinematic traditions while also being fully attuned to contemporary sensibilities and concerns courses through McQueen’s work. In an age where there is — in the Anglosphere particularly — much cack-handed layering of a skin-deep ‘diversity’ on screens, big and small, McQueen is a quiet warrior for marrying high quality storytelling with genuinely broad representation.
Describing working in Britain when making his first two films, McQueen once said: “It’s like Johannesburg in 1976, if you go behind the scenes [of a film production]. I made two British movies (Hunger and Shame) and I never met one person of colour in any below-the-line situations. Not one. No black, no Asian, no one. Like, hello? What’s going on here?” As McQueen’s oeuvre continues to grow, you sense that ‘what’s going on here’ is, much like the way Viola Davis recruits the other widows, who areforced to face up to reality and to grow up, not least for purely commercial motives.
Where McQueen gets his approach to this sly marriage of crime caper and social commentary spot on is highlighted by another of the director’s past statement: “Art can’t fix anything. It can just observe and portray. What’s important is that it becomes an object, a thing you can see and talk about and refer to.” Widows is just such an object, telling a cracking story while opening up a range of contentious issues that many are grappling with today. In making such an object, McQueen has not only made a genre film, he’s also pushed the genre itself. Widows can perhaps best be described as being in its own sub-genre — “elevated crime thriller” — doing for the heist movie what Get Out has recently done for the horror flick, namely lending the genre a stark and powerful social relevance that brings it bang up to date, without ever losing even an ounce of its hefty dramatic weight.