London Film Festival Review: Widows

It’s hard to believe a whopping 5 years have passed since Steve McQueen’s Best Picture winning historical epic 12 Years A Slave graced our screens, and with the female-led heist thriller Widows, the acclaimed director is back with a bang. 

A sharp piece of genre filmmaking

Throughout his career as a director, McQueen has often switched between basing his films on the the historical and the contemporary. This time around, McQueen forms the basis for Widows using a contemporary Chicago backdrop that enables him to ponder some of today’s more socially relevant themes. After the death of her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and his crew of armed robbers, shot by the police after a heist gone wrong, Veronica (Viola Davis) is left a widow facing down a serious debt to a local gangster/wannabe politician. Forming a makeshift outfit made-up of the widows of her husband’s crew, Veronica aims to pull off a heist to pay off her debt and make enough money for them all to be set for life. 

Without sharp-camera work and editing, the tension in this film would leave a lot to be desired. However, the technical prowess on display allows the film to permanently position the viewer on the edge of their seat, flitting between a host of interlinking stories with such effortlessness that enables the story to flow perfectly throughout. The accompanying Hans Zimmer score further allows the use of close-ups and tracking shots to study the characters in-depth and Zimmer’s particular style of composing only ceases to increase the blistering pace and combining with the twists and turns of the plot to deliver a thrilling climax. 

A plethora of talent

Similarly to 12 Years A Slave, McQueen shows with Widows that he has the capability to wield serious levels of star power without the film being too wrapped up in its ensemble cast, instead anchoring it with a slew of strong, varied performances from surely one of the year’s strongest casts. As the only real lead in the film, Viola Davis brings a typical fierce intensity to the role that enables a strong bond between audience and protagonist. Her performance utilises grief as an emotion in a way that is truly resounding, and using flashbacks McQueen uses Veronica to present a biting, harrowing reference to problems in today’s world. Two of the widows recruited by Veronica come in the form of Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki, and it’s the latter who turns in arguably the best performance in the film. Certainly the decision to opt for a female-led cast has proved a strong one for McQueen, who’s gang of widows turned thieves command the screen at all times. 

It doesn’t end there however, with further strong supporting performances from the likes of Colin Farrell, Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya and the ever-brilliant Robert Duvall. Farrell’s character: Jack Mulligan, running to replace his father (Duvall) in office against Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning is a useful device for some of McQueen’s social commentary, with nods to unlawful dealings and corruption rife in the film’s political story. Duvall’s performance is brief yet fiery, his encounters with his son brutal and intrusive, the hallmark of a quality actor such as himself. It is Daniel Kaluuya however, fresh off his Oscar nomination for Get Out, who turns in another terrific performance as the brother of Jamal Manning, creating a real paradox of character who is equally as entertaining as he is psychopathic. Many of the plaudits however have to go to McQueen and Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, whose excellent dialogue and script work certainly got the most out of a talented cast.

The Verdict

There’s not really a great deal, if anything wrong with Widows: it has a great score, impressive technical elements and an ensemble cast full of strong performances, it’s just not perfect. Despite the tension remaining strong there were moments of dragging, mostly papered over however by smart plot twists and a powerful relevance to the real world. Widows could potentially be in with a Best Picture nomination and certainly features some strong performances, so it’s more than worth keeping your eye on this awards season. A must watch for fans of visceral, exciting cinema. 

Rating: 8/10

Words by Elliott Jones

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