The renaissance of female-led art is officially underway with this entertaining edge-of-your-seat romp.
Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) have nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Tensions arise amongst the three until they decide to take fate into their own hands and forge a future on their own terms freeing themselves of their husbands’ debt. Roping in single mother Belle (Cynthia Erivo) the women set off on a course which changes their lives forever.
Steve McQueen (12 years a Slave, Shame) has taken the original British crime television series and novel (penned by Lynda LaPlante) and successfully taken it from the gritty streets of 1960s London to modern day Chicago. Renowned for his revolutionary vision – simultaneously entertaining audiences whilst teaching filmmakers how to direct a film his way, doesn’t disappoint here. Being a Black director, with a healthy presence of leading Black actors, McQueen effortlessly incorporates police brutality and racism into the already existing themes of corruption, classism, and misogyny without it feeling too crammed with ‘issues‘. Neatly pulling them all together to almost give us a masterpiece. Though Widows retains his signature style of bold shot choices and thematically dramatic scenes, it is a more commercial offering than we’re used to from the Oscar-winner.
What doesn’t work so well, one might argue, lays with the adaptation of LaPlante’s book into a screenplay. The story, whilst belonging to the widows, seems to focus rather heavily on the impact of their late husbands on their lives, to the point that McQueen continually weaves in multiple flashbacks, sometimes gratuitously, to show how much each husband was pivotal to their wife’s life, especially honing in on Veronica (Davis) and Harry’s (Liam Neeson) relationship. Quite significantly also, a rather important choice by a male character is the pivotal plot-twist in this film. The women merely respond at all times.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the most significant relationship in the film is interracial, with no other black relationships represented – Erivo’s ‘Belle‘ is a single mother, following a trend in mainstream films which suggests ambitious black women will/should seek to “marry up” to white men if possible. Though Davis has been celebrating the importance that in Widows we get to see a white man and black woman in love on screen, with no slavery or abuse narrative underpinning their story, it’s still rare to see two black people take centre stage in a ‘mainstream‘ commercial film in love without issue. It’s a conversation. Not to ignore, however, that Veronica does reference race in a conversation with Harry, it is not glossed over.
All that being said, the acting elevates Widows to another level, everyone from Colin Farrell, to Robert Duvall to star of Atlanta, Brian Tyree Henry all bring their best to their characters. Davis continues to be the powerhouse Oscar-winning actress we’ve fallen in love with. Unafraid and unabashed about portraying all her colours and emotions on screen, as a grieving widow finding her backbone, legs, and proverbial “balls“, Veronica goes through an excellent range which makes for a beautifully rich arch. As a result, there is no problem believing where Veronica gets to by the end of the film when a final plot twist reveals itself and tests all the steel she has gained through the story.
Erivo comes in a bit later but immediately owns her scenes as soon as she appears on screen, standing toe-to-toe with Davis and giving a beautiful, strong portrayal of a single black mother happy to do literally anything to make ends meet. She, like Davis, displays a version of feminity not always celebrated on screen, highlighting that it comes in all different forms and that one does not have to sacrifice strength or physique to be as female. Erivo is a strong new talent and a beacon of things to come, that is, what will become the norm for female actresses to have in their toolbox.
The most interesting story arch belongs to Elizabeth Debicki’s ‘Alice‘, whose character really evolves into someone extremely different from where she began. Alice is the closest to passing the Bechtel test after Erivo’s even though, unfortunately, due to the fact that the story is still so heavily led by their husbands’ influences on their lives (with a lot of time carved out for flashbacks which, though necessary for explaining character motivations, don’t always need to exist to move the story forward), does not manage to achieve this.
The supporting cast is fantastic; giving the leads a lot of grit to play off. Daniel Kaluuya stands out for his frightening and steady portrayal of the younger Manning brother ‘Jatemme‘. Every fibre of his character’s being tells of a man you would not want looking for you day or night, a very different performance to anything I’ve yet to see Kaluuya have to give before this film.
LaPlante’s writing has stood the test of time and it’s pleasing to see past female paragons of literature, art, stage, and screen are now getting a renaissance as a result of the #MeToo and equality movements in Hollywood. For what this film represents, instills a sense of pride as it’s a step in the right direction for women-led heist films. F Gary Gray’s, 1996 classic “Set it Off” was one of the first films to tackle the female heist genre (successfully). Starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberley Elise it did not, and does not get its true due and recognition.
Here’s hoping that with the inevitable success of Widows, people will look back and remember those who did it first.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer(s): Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Viola Davis, Brian Tyree Henry, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell
UK release date: In UK cinemas now