It is hard to believe that director Steve McQueen has only made four full-length films, a process that has taken 10 years. The former Turner-prize winning artist is now so renowned as a filmmaker that his latest release, Widows, opened this year’s London Film Festival and arrives in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow. Hunger in 2008 announced McQueen’s arrival as an exciting new director with an almost forensic appreciation of character psychology and an eye for cinematography that directly reflects that insight. A decade on and McQueen has flourished, evolving from his early indie roots to tell stories on a much broader canvas, earning him critical acclaim and a sack-full of awards. His skill has always been to retain the personal world view of his characters and although Widows has blockbuster scale and a gorgeous ensemble cast, it is always the intimate story of three desperate but resourceful women.
In one way or another McQueen’s films are always about desperation, people trapped in their lives either for political, social or character reasons and unable to make the changes they so clearly need. There is always a considerable jeopardy for the individual, a life or death battle as principle, justice and duty are challenged by often quite brutal external forces. Sometimes, that jeopardy is more contained, one person trying to overcome compulsions that come to define their entire life, trying to break unchecked patterns of behaviour that could precipitate a complete breakdown or collapse of the individual’s balance.
Hunger and 12 Years a Slave are examples of the first kind of desperation where the protagonists have a particular cause to follow and, whatever the rights and wrongs of their situation, contextually McQueen showcases the unrelenting waves of prejudice, inhumanity and injustice that prevent their escape, while focusing tightly on the enduring belief that sustains their resolve to the end. For Bobby Sands in the Maze Prison, a belief that a sacrificial act, a hunger strike, was the only form of protest open to him, while for Solomon Northup that his freedom from wrongful enslavement was his right by law. By taking us into the minds of these characters, it gives purpose and agency to McQueen’s political context.
He takes this in a very different direction in Shame examining the addictive nature of sexual compulsion, and while not overtly political in the same way, his character lives in a cold, emotionless New York, full of consumerism, immediacy of gratification but removal of intimacy, creating a context in which lifestyle and appearance are more important than the unravelling human life beneath. Widows feels like the culmination of this work combining as it does a well-realised and restrictive political and economic context with the emotional and psychological consequences of grief, fear and the daily burden of the female leads.
Based on the 1980s mini-series of the same name by revered crime-writer Lynda La Plante and co-adapted with Gillian Flynn famous for her own galling novel Gone Girl for which she penned the screenplay, McQueen has spoken enthusiastically about the effect of this show on his view of female-led narratives. The transposition to modern-day Chicago is perfect and after a high-stakes opener full of violence, danger and energy, McQueen carefully unveils a small but corrupt suburb of Chicago and how it continues to shape the options available to the women who live there.
What makes Widows so interesting is how these two elements run together throughout the film, interconnected and increasingly intrinsic to the ways in which the story unfolds. As we get to know the characters better we understand more about the world in which they live, which in turn reveals more to us about the characters. It is a wonderful balancing act that combines Gillian Flynn’s screenplay and McQueen’s visual approach with not a scene wasted, every moment feels carefully designed to tell us about someone or to reveal key information that drives the plot.
Of course, this is a heist movie so the planning, execution and aftermath of the crime are the basis for the story, along with all the elements the genre demands – big set pieces moments, plans going wrong mid-job and shadowy meetings in remote locations. All of this McQueen handles with aplomb, utilising the frenetic energy of the two heists to bookend the plot, the kind of coordinated chaos and sense of power that he elicited from the riot scenes in Hunger. But where this departs from – and arguably improves on – the genre is in the creation of time and place that situates the second heist in the grimy underbelly of Chicago organised crime and its all too real link to political office.
This approach is also notable for how it alters the purpose of the heist film, changing the casual lark for personal gain into something far more dangerous and driven by external forces. A million miles from the recent Oceans 8, Widows is not a flamboyant jaunt undertaken by a bunch of super-cool criminals, but a forced endeavour by people with no idea what they are doing, held to ransom by the failures of their now dead husbands to protect them, suddenly thrust into a criminal world they never knew existed with serious life or death consequences if they fail to act
Because the women don’t know each other, it gives Flynn and McQueen the chance to explore their quite different lives in more details. First, Veronica (Viola Davies) as the wife of male heist leader played by Liam Neeson, in which we see the couple’s relatively comfortable lifestyle in a beautiful, stylish apartment with stunning views across the city. But as with Brandon’s flat in Shame, these uncluttered interiors belie an emotional emptiness that makes it a cold and unforgiving place. Cleverly, not all of that is about Neeson’s early death and although we see plenty of intensely romantic flashbacks of the couple as Veronica remembers what appears to be an intense intimacy and connection she shared with her husband, a pre-existing grief was always between them, making their surroundings elegant but remote.
And that is exactly how Davies plays the role, her Veronica is beautifully, and expensively, tailored at all times in rich fabrics designed to set her apart from the women she eventually leads. But her desperation and dissatisfaction with her life strongly emerges as Davies shows us Veronica’s painful realisation of the truth, first about the need to repay the debt owed to the crime boss left by her husband’s failure to complete the original heist, and second as the truth of her former life comes into focus through her grief.
It’s a fascinating performance from Davies, brusque and remote with the other women, the skills of a leader but with a fragile side that she hides from the world. As the story unfolds and reality dawns, Veronica discovers an independent strength that Davies makes quite sympathetic, and you start to root for these women battered by the choices and consequences of the very male world in which they must operate.
Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda is from another side of Chicago entirely, a working mother with a different kind of hardness that keeps people at a distance from her. After the death of the husband she never really needed, Linda comes in one day to find her dress shop being repossessed and no way to feed her family. Struggling to keep afloat, she accepts Veronica’s proposition as a last resort but remains aloof from the other women, sharing nothing about herself with them, only focusing on the work.
While Linda is a difficult character to warm to, and we never really see her grieve for her marriage, Rodriguez at least makes you respect her and understand the limitations for working-class single parents having to make the best of it. She is also the avenue into another of the film’s themes about the small business-owning aspirations of women in the community, including her friend who runs a salon, and a confined ambition that improves their ability to sustain their family. Linda’s environment may be less flashy than Veronica’s, but it is also warmer, integrated into the wider society of this part of Chicago, a matriarchy of working women none of whom the politicians ever really help.
Finally, Elizabeth Debicki is the most innocent of the group, a beautiful but penniless young woman whose release from her marriage creates further problems that catapult her into the paths of other men. Forced into a high-class semi-prostitution within weeks of his death, Alice quickly becomes involved with a businessman who eventually proves useful but initially just takes advantage of her fear and nervousness.
But Alice’s development mirrors Veronica’s as she comes to terms with what her life must be, growing a form of independence as her confidence improves. There is much to like in Debicki’s performance, you feel for her as she falls back on the only thing she thinks she has, her beauty, while enjoying some of the film’s more comedic scenes as she successfully tracks down equipment for the heist. Balancing that humour with the deep tragedy of her circumstances is really well done and watching her emerge from within herself has considerable pathos.
Widows is still a man’s world, and there are some colourful supporting roles for a great male ensemble, including Liam Neeson as Veronica’s less than perfect husband. There is real depth in the way McQueen and Flynn create the circumstances of Chicago, including the crime boss Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning running for office to challenge the hegemony of the established political family who believe their seat should be hereditary. Nothing is black and white here, and while challenging the elite should be a good thing, Jamal hires Daniel Kaluuya’s sociopathic henchman to put the frighteners on the women and their associates, muddying his own campaign.
Equally fascinating is the relationship between former political leader Tom Mulligan, an imposing Robert Duvall, and his reluctant son Jack the sitting candidate aiming for re-election. They could easily have become the pantomime baddies, but instead we get a difficult and credible father-son relationship in a family that has played every move in public. Colin Farrell’s Jack may be a generic politician but, like the women, he has never really had the life he would have chosen, desperate to leave politics but sublimating his own needs to the Mulligan cause.
All of this context is so valuable in understanding why characters are hemmed in by other people’s choices, unable to act freely, and McQueen is so good at creating characters that you may not approve of but showing you their psychology. Widows is so successful because it manages to tell an entertaining story that rattles along extremely well using the characteristics of the heist film, while revealing the political, economic and social structures that have led to inequality, racism and deprivation in this part of Chicago. He may only have made four full-length films but what an astonishing body of a work they are.