Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen
Based on the TV Series by: Lynda La Plante
Producers: Steve McQueen, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Arnon Milchan
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 128 mins
When a filmmaker who is considered by many to be primarily, if you’ll excuse me the use of a horrible term, an ‘art-house director’ decides to try their hand at the action/thriller genre, often the result brings out the worst kind of snobbery at both ends of the scale. While narrow-minded fans of the director’s more esoteric work may haughtily bemoan a dalliance with commercial viability, the more territorial eyeball-rollers amongst fans of mainstream cinema are just as likely to adopt a “get-off-our-patch” attitude. It’s heartening then when audiences of all kinds put aside these risible attitudes and are united by an intelligent, entertaining, well-executed piece of genre cinema. With Widows, director Steve McQueen did just that and for a brief moment before it drifted perplexingly past the Academy’s sights it looked like the film might be on course to become as critically-lauded as McQueen’s multi-award-winning hit 12 Years a Slave.
In a year when Alfonso Cuaron’s Netflix-funded Roma ignited much debate about the eligibility of small-screen successes, McQueen had one more form of snobbery to navigate his way around. Although Widows was a theatrical release, its origins were televisual with Lynda La Plante’s 1983 TV series of the same name serving as source material. It’s fair to say that audiences unaware of this small-screen connection would probably not suspect any such former life for what is a more-than-sufficiently cinematic work but those going into Widows aware of its source will probably be able to spot approximate points in the narrative that would have served as cliffhangers in an episodic structure. I certainly found myself playing this game but not so much as a judgement on the material’s suitability for feature film adaptation than as a gleeful meditation on just how excellent British TV drama was in the 1980s.
One criticism that was levelled at Widows by many people unaware of the film’s origins was that it had too many interesting characters and plot threads for its two-hour time frame to accommodate, with some unknowingly astute viewers even suggesting it would have made a good mini-series. Riveted by the film as I watched it one torrentially grim Sunday afternoon, I found myself in total agreement that the film is packed with fascinatingly drawn characters and plots but complete disagreement that the film cannot sufficiently contain them. Perhaps Widows’ greatest trump card is its extraordinarily tight screenplay by Gillian Flynn and McQueen himself. Though arbitrarily compared to Scorcese by some critics, Widows actually feels more akin to a John Sayles film like Lone Star in which an overview of a community is satisfyingly achieved without the pressing need to explore every corner or completely flesh out every character. But Sayles’ films often deliberately leave strands untied for viewers to twiddle with in their own individual way. Widows opts to give nearly all its characters an ending of sorts and in doing so achieves a deeply satisfying conclusion.
The film opens with some exquisitely immersive action scenes and although the focus quickly shifts to a steadier narrative focused around character and dialogue, the nimble way McQueen interweaves the numerous subplots gives the whole film the propulsive force of its initial car chase. Also ensuring viewers remain glued to their screens is the film’s terrific cast headed up by a hypnotically chilly Viola Davis as Veronica, a woman who takes matters into her own hands when the death of her husband and his criminal gang places her in the firing line of the men from whom they stole two million dollars. Setting about recruiting the widows of the others deceased gang members, Veronica aims to complete the next heist they had on the cards. Other standouts amongst the cast are Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, an abused wife whose inclination to seek better in her next relationship is hampered by her mother’s awful influence; Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal, a charismatic crime boss and politician and Daniel Kaluuya as Jamal’s cold-blooded brother and chief enforcer. Other big names like Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell do solid work in supporting roles with only Liam Neeson, in a small but key role, throwing things a tad off balance with a hangdog performance in which he fails to sufficiently cast off the shackles of his own fame in order to truly convince. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Brad Pitt’s distracting appearance in 12 Years a Slave but at least Neeson’s role feels like part of the whole rather than a tacked-on cameo.
Widows isn’t a perfect film. There’s the odd plot twist that betrays the soapier influence that occasionally marred some 80s TV dramas and the occasional scene that feels a touch familiar but McQueen has worked up such a magnificent, multi-faceted thriller from the material that these shortcomings feel almost like a celebration of those hackneyed touches we sometimes secretly enjoy. Wrapped in the film’s stylish, atmospheric sheen, every part of the narrative is as easy to swallow as a paper pill washed down with a glass of water. It takes something a bit special to stand out amongst the crowded action/thriller market but then we are talking about a director who managed to overcome the fact that he had the same name as one of the biggest movie stars of the 20th century. The sterling work he has done on Widows will ensure that when someone mentions the name Steve McQueen, for the foreseeable future people will still respond with the question “Which one?”
Widows is released on Digital Download from 1st March and VOD, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on 18th March by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Special features are as follows:
– Widows Unmasked: A Chicago Story
– Plotting the Heist: The Story
– Assembling the Crew: Production
– The Scene of the Crime: Locations
– Theatrical trailer