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“Our lives are in danger; our husbands aren’t coming back; we’re on our own”. Transposing Lynda La Plante’s groundbreaking TV series from 80s London to present-day Chicago, this latest from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen is an empowering, electrifying thriller with an ensemble cast to die for.
Co-scripted by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, it follows a disparate group of women who are forced to pick up the criminal baton from their recently deceased husbands. Intelligent, engrossing and fiercely emotional (without resort to sentimentality), Widows is a sinewy treat that seamlessly intertwines close-up character studies, big-picture politics and audaciously reimagined heist-movie riffs.
When Harry Rawlings and his crew are engulfed in flames during a botched job, Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis in powerhouse form), finds herself owing hustler-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a couple of million dollars. Armed only with a notebook in which Harry detailed his past and future plans, Veronica teams up with the gang’s other widows to mount a robbery that could clear their debts and give them a new start. Meanwhile, an increasingly brutal election battle emphasises the rifts between the penthouses and pavements of Chicago, raising the stakes for this ramshackle group’s first foray into crime.
Like the characters of F Gary Gray’s terrific 1996 thriller Set It Off, the heroines of McQueen’s movie are real women juggling everyday problems (debt, childcare, work, relationships) with their newfound lawless enterprise. Michelle Rodriguez is smartly cast against type as dress-shop proprietor and mother Linda, who has yet to discover her own punchy power; Elizabeth Debicki is abused-wife Alice, finding her own voice after a lifetime of submissive subservience; and Cynthia Erivo (the best thing in the recently released Bad Times at the El Royale) is no-nonsense South Side single mum Belle, who becomes the team’s streetwise Baby Driver.
Planning their heist in the testosterone-fuelled environment of a lock-up adorned with girlie calenders, the women come to realise that their gender is their secret weapon, declaring that “the best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off”.
Making superb use of authentic Chicago locations, McQueen conjures a very modern tale of class, race and religion, in which “criminals are like cops”, black lives only matter to some, and charismatic preachers play both ends against each other. Emphasising the fractured nature of this world, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s camera descends from ritzy apartments, through elevated railways and on to hardscrabble neighbourhood streets. In one remarkable extended shot, political heir apparent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) drives in real time from desolate slums to grassy mansions, the camera focusing not on the conversation inside the car, but on the changing world outside, where wealth and poverty are only blocks apart. The expansive widescreen frame frequently emphasises the distance between characters, with faces seen in mirrors and through glass, amid crystals of reflected city lights.
Hans Zimmer’s low-key score is used sparsely at first, subtly emphasising themes of loneliness while making way for the vinyl sounds of Nina Simone’s Wild Is the Wind (a mesmerising use of music that evokes memories of Carey Mulligan’s New York, New York set piece from McQueen’s Shame). As the heist kicks into gear, so the score picks up the pace, providing a pulsing beat that matches the subtly accelerating rhythm of Joe Walker’s reliably elegant editing.
But it’s the performances that really make this fly, with a plethora of speaking roles each perfectly cast. Daniel Kaluuya exudes bone-chilling intensity as Jamal’s brother, Jatemme, eyeballing his adversaries with murderous intent. Robert Duvall is the face of the old guard, invoking Custer’s last stand with Trump-like rants about illegal immigrants and their offspring. Jacki Weaver blends tenderness with terror as Alice’s mother, Agnieska; Carrie Coon plays things close to her chest as the elusive Amanda; and Lukas Haas is barely recognisable as the suavely hollow David.
At the centre of it all is Viola Davis’s linchpin Veronica, haunted by flashbacks of life with her husband (Liam Neeson), cradling her little white dog like a lost child. Bobbitt’s camera may catch her grieving in close-up, but it’s Davis’s silences that speak loudest. In one of the film’s most spine-tingling moments, she hesitates before a closed door, saying nothing but expressing everything. Having won a supporting actress Oscar for Fences, Davis’s astonishing performance deserves to attract best actress attention at the forthcoming Academy Awards. Yet in a collaborative endeavour almost overburdened by outstanding work, it seems strange to single out any single element for recognition. For me, that is the film’s greatest strength.
• Widows is released on Tuesday 6 November.
Source: The Guardian
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