4 stars
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki
Duration: 129 mins
Class: 18
KRS Releasing Ltd

I have strong memories of the British crime drama Widows, which aired in the mid-1980s. I remember being struck not only but the fine writing and excellent performances, but also by the fact that the protagonists were strong, independent women, who make the most out of a tragic event.

I was, therefore, curious to see what this version of the story made for the big screen would be like. More so that it has been made by filmmaker Steve McQueen, better known for his hard-hitting socially-conscious movies.

Indeed, McQueen delivers more than a mere heist movie – his take on Widows says much about issues facing the world today – religion, politics and social injustice.

Four armed robbers, led by seasoned criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), carry off what will be their final heist, ending in a shootout with police, a massive explosion and their deaths. Their respective widows are distraught, especially so Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) who has already had to deal with severe grief following the death of their son years earlier.

Yet, Veronica has little time to contemplate her future, when she herself is drawn into the criminal world when forced to settle a $2 million debt left by her husband.

Widows’ explosive opening settles down into a slow burn as McQueen takes his time to introduce the wealth of complex characters that people the story.

He takes his time before things move back up a few gears as it approaches its nail-biting and unexpected finale.

Overall, the storytelling is superb. McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn and they have created a compelling narrative, keeping the original’s basic premise, but transporting it to contemporary Chicago while superbly bringing the myriad characters together.

McQueen delivers more than a mere heist movie

And what a terrific dramatis personae it is. Veronica is a hardened, grief-stricken woman shaken out of her comfortable, affluent life by events. Blonde bombshell and abuse victim Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has no idea to cope away from her sheltered life; mother-of-two Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) not only has to cope with her husband’s death, but her shop being requisitioned; while hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) gets more than she bargains for after babysitting Linda’s kids.

On the other side of the story is gangster-turned-politician Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) and his volatile brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). There’s also Jamal’s rival contender in the forthcoming local election, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a man reluctantly following in his unpleasant father’s footsteps.

And it is a brutal and dramatic impact when the widows and the politicians’ worlds collide. It is a mix of people from different racial and social backgrounds with different ambitions, from the honourable to the less so.

It is, on the one hand, the coming together of a group of women. Four women previously unknown to each other need to carry out an impossible task which they soon come to realise is absolutely necessary if they want to survive. Watching these disparate women come together to pull off a crime is one of the many delights the film offers. They also struggle with grief and the prospect of an uncertain future, while highlighting the tribulations women of all stripes have to face on a daily basis.

In the meantime, with the characters of Jack and Jamal slugging it out in a close electoral race, McQueen highlights the dirt, violence, and corruption that dangerously consumes the modern political world.

It is a superb ensemble, led by the ever-reliable Davis, whose Veronica is a mysterious woman who’s had some hard knocks in her life. She tackles this latest one with detachment until the cracks caused by grief and an unexpected betrayal begin to show.

It is no secret that Davis is used to playing tough, uncompromising women yet it is always a delight to see the many layers she brings to her characters.

Debicki’s Alice is a frightened, fragile, vulnerable woman, and Rodriguez’s Linda sullen and suspicious. Yet, in them, Veronica finds unlikely allies. Kudos also to Erivo – this is one of the young actor’s debut roles, following last week’s Bad Times at the El Royale – and she already displays a fantastic range. 

The men don’t do so too badly either, with both Farrell and Henry’s putative politicians all too aware of the dirty tricks they need to play to survive in an increasingly difficult world. 

Neeson turns up in flashback, showing at times the more peaceful and happy times Harry shared with Veronica before life went sour; while Robert Duvall as Jack’s father effortlessly embodies the sleaze of politics.