US/UK (2018) Dir. Steve McQueen

In following up his Oscar winning 12 Years A Slave, Brit director Steve McQueen takes the unusual route of resurrecting an 80’s British TV crime drama and giving it a modern – a very Hollywood – overhaul.

A criminal gang led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) based in Chicago are killed when their escape from a bank heist goes horribly wrong. As their widows mourn their losses, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) is approached by crime boss and prospective politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a former victim of a $2 million robbery by Harry and his gang.

Jamal needs the money to finance his electoral campaign and decides in Harry’s absence Veronica is indebted to repay him the money, giving her a month to liquidate her assets if necessary. Veronica discovers a notebook of Harry’s detailing every one of his heists, including a failed one for $5 million and decides to take the job on herself but needs help. So, she recruits the widows of the two other dead gang members – Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) – to assist.

Originally from prolific crime writer Lynda La Plante, Widows ran for two series from 1983 to 1985 and although I’ve not seen it, I can only assume it was considerably less glossy than this update. Scripted by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame) the relocation to the US does invite ideas of a glamorous upgrade but the setting of the South Side with a focus on the urban community gives it is gritty, working class edge.

Whilst the basic story is retained, the relocation Stateside yields a fresh subplot that is worlds away from the dour streets of 80’s London, involving the political machinations of Jamal and his main rival, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the latest in a family with political dominance over the ward. At first this seems like an extraneous adjunct but later spills over into the main plot but doesn’t fully justify its existence.

Part of it seems to fit into McQueen’s representation of black people in cinema, tacitly hinting that the voters have a choice between a white man whose family have held the ward in their hands for generations and a black man who wants to see a change in prosperity for his community. Yet, contrary to this notion, Mulligan works for change too, trying to rid his campaign of the toxic miasma of his racist father (Robert Duvall).

Yet while Mulligan holds a rally for his program that supports minority women he also strong arms repayments from a beauty salon he funded, run by a black woman who employs Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a single mum and babysitter for Linda. Belle becomes involved in the heist when their original driver, Veronica’s long time chauffeur, is killed by Manning’s sociopathic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya).

It’s a complex web weaved but the beauty of it that the principal players aren’t always aware of who else is involved until it is usually too late. But while compelling, a lot of it feels unnecessary when the true story of the titular widows and their uncertain assuming of the roles of their late husband’s demands greater focus, often overshadowed by the drama of the Mulligans and the Mannings.

Of the three widows, Linda is the least fleshed out, a working mum of two with her own dress shop until it is repossessed by debt collectors, revealing her husband’s gambling problem. This is a conventional repercussion compared to that of the gangly, naive Alice, formerly abused by her husband now signed up as a high-class escort by her pushy mother Agnieszka (Jacki Weaver).

Veronica, as Harry’s wife, is seen as the de facto replacement for her late husband in sorting his debts and continuing his criminal legacy but the reality is she is just as scared as the others are, she only hides it better. The flag waving for female empowerment isn’t very subtle here but the original TV show shared the same message, the difference being it was a novelty back in 1983 and not as potently relevant as it is today.

In the original Harry’s widow was named Dolly, one of the distinct changes brought by moving to the US, along with Veronica being a little more refined in her look opposed to Ann Mitchell‘s tough as old boots Dolly (Mitchell has a small cameo here). There is no doubting the depth of Veronica’s resolve, born from desperation yet she still questions herself, providing a sense that not all morality has been lost.

Steve McQueen presents his most Hollywood film to date, assuredly a reflection of the big studio support and budget earned after his Oscar win, and whilst his ability to tell a compelling story is not lost, the script is quite flabby. A slow first hour spends too much time laying the foundation for the final act with some threads petering out rather than climaxing with a bang.

The trailer promises a lot of explosive action but this is misleading with only a few moments of bombastic excess – even the heist is a swift affair. However, knowing this is about the people and not their actions, the performances compensate for this. Viola Davis leads from the front as Veronica, showing grace under intense emotional pressure yet proving a formidable fighter for her cause.

Michelle Rodriguez brings a quiet intensity to her role as Linda whilst Elizabeth Debicki makes a decent account for herself as Alice, buttressed by an incendiary turn from Cynthia Erivo. Stealing the show for the men is Daniel Kaluuya as the frankly disturbing Jatemme, a cold-blooded psychopath with a Samuel L. Jackson-esque panache about him.

Having established himself as a daring filmmaker, Widows is Steve McQueen at his most commercial and by no means a bad film but his weakest yet thanks to a bloated script, otherwise his keen sense of cinema construction makes this a punchy enough modern crime drama.