Film Critic Calum Cooper is in London for the 62nd London Film Festival. First up is the festival’s opening film, Steve McQueen’s Widows.
Widows – ★★★★☆
Widows opened the 62nd London Film Festival with thrills and compelling drama that glues audiences to their seats. The duo of Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn as writer and 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen as co-writer and director sounds too good to be true. But what a powerhouse duo they make, resulting in a mesmerising and effortlessly fun experience.
Fun is an ironic description as the film deals with heavy material. Viola Davis plays Veronica, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) was killed in a heist gone wrong. It turns out however that Harry robbed from the wrong person, and he wants his money back. Danger looms over Veronica, who decides her only way out is to finish what Harry started. Thus she makes preparations to pull off her own heist alongside Cynthia Erivo and the widows of Harry’s crew (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki).
Based on the 1983 show of the same name, this is a terrific premise that McQueen and Flynn play around with in creatively solemn ways. It would be easy to go purely for the inventive thrills it sets up, but it wisely dives deeper with its timely commentary.
While these women are all alike in that they’re widowed, they’re in it purely for themselves. They’re not defined by their husbands or their deaths, and they take action for the sake of their own lives rather than a redundant sense of vengenace.
You’d think the heart of the story is grief, given the title of the film. However, death, and its effects on those left behind, is only one of the many harrowing concepts the film addresses. Sexism, racism, and political corruption are all in the foreground too, handled with intelligent intricacy. But perhaps the most predominant, and thankfully most optimistic, theme is solidarity. While these women are all alike in that they’re widowed, they’re in it purely for themselves. They’re not defined by their husbands or their deaths, and they take action for the sake of their own lives rather than a redundant sense of vengeance. Each have unique problems to deal with outside of spousal absence to add to their indiviudual senses of urgency. They’re interesting and easy to empathise with.
Anchoring the film and leading us through its various themes and plot points is a spellbinding cast, and riveting dialogue that’s snappy and intelligent. Viola Davis could be reading out a restaurant menu and she’d make it captivating. But she’s also working alongside brilliant people who all completely absorb themselves in their roles. This may be the best work I’ve seen from both Rodriguez and Debicki, not to mention Daniel Kaluuya’s utterly terrifying turn in as a particularly nasty side character.
However, the film embraces its inner sense of fun with its action. McQueen makes effective use of long takes and wide shots with few cuts to immerse the audience in the intensity of the chases and of the characters’ inner plights in an almost hypnotic fashion. The editing never feels intrusive, Hans Zimmer turns in another electrifying score, and the set design can be pleasantly eye catching too. The action is fun, and the plan is creative, but the authenticity of the people at the centre of the job is what truly sells it. It paves the way for popcorn thrills and even strong comedy for the gaps in between the sombre narrative.
READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE: Columbus
Something to keep in mind is that it juggles a lot of characters and plot points. Other cast members include Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Robert Duvall, and Carrie Coon among others, all of whom play some form of significance to one character or another. It’s a lot to take in, and while the writing is mostly sharp, this vast collection does threaten to slow the pacing. There’s also a surprise twist which I didn’t think was necessary. While it technically does fit in with some of the film’s themes, I thought the story was deep enough and the characters fascinating enough as they were. It was a bit contrived for my tastes.
Nonetheless, Widows is not just a fine addition to the filmographies of McQueen and Flynn, but is a brilliant new film in general. It’s unapologetically stark in its portrayal of violence, grief and corruption. But it’s also endlessly entertaining thanks to McQueen and Flynn’s talents, as well as the complexities of the characters and their wonderful performers.
What a great start to what seems to be a spectacular line up for this year’s festival.
HELP US BUILD A COMMON FUTURE TOGETHER: Support our work at allofusfirst.org/donate