22 November 2018

Widows review

Widows, the latest film from writer/director Steve McQueen, is something of a strange film to try to talk about, and not just because this fairly prestigious production from the director of 12 Years a Slave and starring a number of big name actors turns out to be based on an early 1980's ITV series of the same name. The premise is simple enough - after their husbands die during a job gone wrong, a group of widows must pull off a heist their husbands had planned before their deaths in order to placate a dangerous criminal - but it's the way that Widows tackles that premise that makes it complicated to discuss.

You see, while Widows is inarguably a heist film, it's quite unlike any heist film I've seen before, certainly a far cry away from the glitz and glamour of the Ocean's movies. It terms of tone it's far more similar to something like Michael Mann's Heat, but even then there are fundamental differences in how each film approaches its story, characters and themes that keep them arms length apart. Widows isn't a film about absurdly complex plans or criminal codes of honour - it's just the story of a group of determined women forced to do something they'd all much rather not be doing, and doing it to the best of their abilities.

And it works, thanks in large part to the amount of time that Widows spends fleshing out its main characters and making sure that the audience genuinely understands them. It's a slower, more deliberate pace than folk expecting a high-octane heist film might be up for (and the relatively action packed advertising campaign won't help with that), but McQueen's preference for lots of short, snappy scenes that always offer new information about these characters ensure that it's never too slow, and over time Widows is able to build an incredibly detailed picture of who these characters are and what makes them tick as we watch them interact with one another and the world they now find themselves in. It's genuinely fascinating stuff, and McQueen confident, stripped back direction - alongside Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn's tight, efficient screenplay - keeps us engaged throughout.

Of course, that focus on character would all be for nought if the performances behind them weren't up to scratch, but anyone who has so much as glanced at Widows' cast list should probably know that simply isn't the case here. Whether they be established names like Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, Robert DuVall and Liam Neeson or relative newcomers like Daniel Kaluuya, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debicki, everyone is pretty much at the very top of their game, easily able to sell us on the nuances and psychological reality of these characters. Ultimately though, it's Kaluuya and Debicki who I was most impressed by, albeit for very different reasons - while Kaluuya is playing Widows' most thinly sketched character and still manages to leave an enormous impression thanks to the sheer strength and magnetism of his incredibly intimidating performance alone, Debicki instead has a lot to work with, using that to create arguably the most interesting, likeable character in the film and even managing to hold her own - and more - while sharing the screen with the powerhouse that is Viola Davis. It is Debicki's character who undergoes the biggest arc, finding strength and self worth over the course of the movie and selling the transformation to us in a hugely satisfying way. It sounds harsh, but I'm incredibly glad that this role didn't go to Jennifer Lawrence as originally intended - not because Lawrence couldn't have played this character fairly well, but because Debicki is genuinely incredible here, and I can't imagine the film being as good as it is without her.

What I find most remarkable about Widows, however, is the way that McQueen is able to so neatly weave various social issues into the narrative in both subtle and not so subtle ways. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that Widows outright "tackles" topics like police brutality, racism, sexism and political corruption, but they're certainly all things that Widows has on its mind, details of the world that the titular widows exist in and the lives they have lived that all add to what drives them in one way or another. It's a really interesting and novel way for a film to approach these issues, not looking at them from a birds eye view but instead from a very personal, character driven perspective, and it's only possible thanks to McQueen's decision to tell a story about a group of racially diverse women from varied class backgrounds - people who up until very, very recently didn't often get to lead movies.

All of which means that the few problems I did have with Widows aren't genuine complaints about things that outright don't work but merely comments on things that could've been a little better. Some of the details of how the widows' plan comes together feel overly convenient in comparison to how grounded the rest of the film tries to be; an underlying side plot about a hotly contested election never quite justifies the amount of time we spend with it, while being too important to the main story to cut entirely; the ending feels just a little rushed, and as such doesn't land with the kind of impact it could've. Like I said, they're not big problems by any means, but they're the kind of small things that can easily add up to stop a film from feeling as urgent or as tight or as vital as it otherwise could've, and unfortunately that's exactly what has happened here.

So rather than being the truly great movie it often comes very close to being, Widows is just a very good one - an interesting story told incredibly well by a director who has managed to make a more conventional, accessible film than he has in the past without sacrificing any of his style or vision. A modern classic? I suspect not, and to be honest I'd be surprised to see Widows at the very top of many "best of" lists come the end of the year. But it is still well worth a watch, very much the kind of mid-budget, adult orientated film that we really don't see enough of in an age where if it's not made on a shoestring budget or it's not expected to make a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, it probably isn't getting made at all.

4 stars

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