Tag Archives: Chicago

Film Review: Widows

Widows - Steve McQueen

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.

Widows was premiered at the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas nationwide on 6 November Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – National Theatre

Ma Rainie's Black Bottom by Johan PerssonThe history of race relations in America is complex and fascinating, with the ongoing struggle for equality frequently explored in films, TV and novels. On the stage, the access point for examining these issues has been music, and several major productions have used the development of jazz, blues and Mowtown sounds as a route to understanding the African American experience. From the hit musical Hairspray which tackles segregation in 60s Baltimore through inter-racial dancing, Memphis the recent West End and Broadway smash about a DJ who loves the blues because of his club singer girlfriend also set in the 60s, to Mowtown the Musical which recently opened in London, it is the music that helps to break down racial divides.

Into this space comes the National Theatre revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s 1989 play set during one afternoon in a recording studio as a blues band await the arrival of their boss, the infamous, Ma Rainey. Instead of rehearsing, the men talk about their lives, their dreams and the difficulties they experience as black musicians having to interact with their white manager and studio boss. All four men, distinguished by age and professional experience, end up in conflict at various times, sometimes over small matters like how many sandwiches they can have or which version of a song to play, while at others they argue fiercely over the human condition and the nature of suffering. Once Ma arrives the dynamic shifts as a powerful woman takes control, and making music becomes only a temporary bandage for their troubles.

This play at its heart is about masculinity but there are two types of masculinity colliding, one which looks back to the past, to deference, respect and dignity represented by piano player Toldeo (Lucian Msamati); the other is the forward facing Levee (O-T Fagbbenle) who is pushing for change, arrogant, certain of himself and refusing to believe that a white man can ever stop him achieving his dream of having his own band. As the story unfolds you learn what made these men who they are, each shaped by an early experience of oppression that sets them onto their particular path.

Levee antagonises everyone, not least band leader Cutler (Clint Dyer) who bickers intermittently with him throughout about everything from songs to religion, but what this does is show you a world in flux, it is 1929 and most of these men are scared of that change, and of the world that Levee represents. What it also does is introduce you to a familiar world of male interaction, where competition and one-upmanship are par for the course, each wanting the last word and to be proved right. Ultimately it sets you up for an ending that is entirely unexpected, but one that you actually realise was completely inevitable.

The character of Ma is a shadow for much of the production, hanging over everything in absentia. They are at the studio at the time she says to record songs she wants, in the way she wants them, but takes some considerable time to actually arrive. When she does she is a diva and everyone cow-tows to her buying her Coca-Cola before she’ll sing, allowing her stuttering nephew to do a song intro and turning up the heat to stop her getting cold. Sharon D Clarke is an awesome stage presence, dismissing those around her and completely certain she’ll get what she wants. She fills the enormous Lyttelton Stage with a ferocious presence and when the tunes eventually arrive, they are glorious – suggesting, in our celebrity-obsessed world, that you can forgive any behaviour for that kind of talent. This is who Levee wants to be.

But, Dominic Cooke’s layered production lets us see the big bad world beyond the Studio where actually Ma’s reach is limited. Here among these people she may be a superstar but she is only allowed to perform at select white functions and even a local policeman sees the colour of her skin before her fame, refusing to accept her side of the story over an alleged assault which delayed her arrival at the Studio. It’s only when her white manager vouchers for her and pays-off the cop that she is free. So however famous and powerful she thinks she is, the play shows she still needs help to maintain her status. What is so brilliant about Clarke’s performance is that she has no idea how dependent she is on anyone else, which only adds to the meaning for the audience. But she’s not a monster in any way and here again it is the music that allows us to see more of her heart when she says that singing the blues isn’t about making herself happy, it’s a necessity to get through the day and make sense of everything.

As ever with the National the designers, Ultz, have outdone themselves with in-effect a three storey construction that implies the nature of status in this play. Initially it’s a bare studio floor, just a microphone and some chairs so you can see all the rigging and lighting backstage in what looks like an enormous empty warehouse. In the centre is a small cabin recording booth up a winding staircase. The third level is downstairs from the studio floor, a rehearsal room which rises up onto the stage like a giant oblong box which is where most of the musician interaction takes place – they are the lowest in this food-chain. Ma dominates the studio area but only the white manager and studio boss are allowed into the cabin where they sit above everyone else, barring entry with a ‘No Admittance’ sign – telling you everything you need to know about this society.

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a song that eventually we get to hear, one of four the band is set to perform, and the one that causes such anxiety among the band. Perhaps what is so astonishing about this play is that the anxiety it speaks of is not entirely confined to race, but to the nature of people in general. There is no obvious good and bad, no heroes and villains just a group of people trying to survive and often doing the most damage to the very people they should be trying to help. The National’s production couldn’t be more timely with diversity rows overshadowing this year’s Oscars and already rearing its head in the American Presidential campaign. But this play is saying that political respect is only half the battle and respect for individuals and their histories is the key, brought together by wonderful music.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is at the National Theatre until 18 May. Tickets start at £15 and the production is included in the National’s Friday Rush scheme where tickets are sold for £20 from 1pm.


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