An armed robbery goes horribly wrong when Harry Rawlings and his crew are killed in action. The titular Widows are forced to band together and take up their husbands’ criminal enterprises, led by Veronica Rawlings.
I’m slightly too young to be aware of the original version of Widows, but I’m reliably informed that it was a TV mini-series based on a Lynda La Plante novel, which first aired in the 1980s. For those of you who are too young to know who Lynda La Plante is, she’s a British crime author who created things like Prime Suspects. When I first found out that director Steve McQueen’s next project was a remake of 1980s drama penned by Lynda La Plante I thought it was some sort of joke or something that had been spewed out by a Twitter-bot designed to randomly generate movie pitches.
The action is transplanted (Lynda La Transplanted?) from London to the gritty streets of Chicago and kicks off with a tense opening act. We see Harry (Liam Neeson) and the rest of his gang carrying out the fateful robbery in a scene that brilliantly lays out the story and the stakes without a single ounce of fat – everything is tight and lean and visceral.
This could very easily have been a simple story about a group of women coming together to do a heist; a grittier Oceans 8 if you like. Instead, Steve McQueen shoots for something much more ambitious and with a much wider scope, but we’ll get to that.
At its heart, this film is built on interesting characters and fantastic performances. The central group of Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) are superb, each in their own way. Viola Davis is probably likely to attract the most praise as the leader of the gang, but every one of them delivers a layered, nuanced character that could have easily been the lead. I think Elizabeth Debicki was my standout from the central group, just because she constantly surprised me and took the character to places that I didn’t necessarily see coming.
Elsewhere, orbiting around the edge of the impending robbery are would be Alderman Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his racist father Tom (Robert Duvall) as they go up against Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his calmly chilling brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). They are largely there to provide texture and depth to the story and it really works. Chicago and the 18th Ward, in particular, feels like a living, breathing place. I do know that Chicago (and indeed the 18th Ward) are real places but what I mean is that this doesn’t feel like an artifice; it feels like McQueen has just gone out and filmed life unfolding.
Widows aims to be more than a story of a crime. It digs into some deep political, social and economic themes. There’s a fabulous shot of Jack Mulligan’s chauffeur-driven car leaving the deprived and desolate areas of the Ward and driving to his luxurious mansion only a few minutes away. Instead of being in the car with the actors we hear them talking but view the changing cityscape via a camera on the bonnet of the car. It’s a simple but effective method of highlighting the disparity and injustice that span the space of a few blocks.
I think Widows only falls down (if indeed this is a fall) by having too much interesting stuff around the edges. The political battle is a necessary backdrop to an extent but does shift the focus sometimes. It was such an interesting side note that it could have carried its own film, really. Similarly, Daniel Kaluuya’s character is so terrifying, and yet utterly engaging, that I almost wanted to see more of his and his brother’s story.
Widows is a fantastic film that manages to be a broad-appeal crime thriller while still finding the time to ask some important questions.