Since the turn of the decade, there has been a rise in the popularisation of television series and films from the 1970s and 80s receiving modernised adaptations. Steve McQueen’s Widows is based on a British crime drama series from this period, telling the story of a group of women whose bank-robbing spouses are killed during a heist and are then forced to take on a job in order to pay off their late husbands’ debt.
Widows opens with a juxtaposition of Veronica (Viola Davis) and Harry Rawlings’ (Liam Neeson) pleasant looking life and depiction of fellow widows Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and their partners, contrasting with the heist where the thieves are fatally ambushed. I found this a particularly interesting way to open the film as it gave some background to the widows’ relationships with their spouses whilst simultaneously and succinctly telling the story. Veronica is then forced into taking up a job with Alice and Linda because the money their husbands stole belonged to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), an underworld criminal. His brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) controls the pairs’ criminal dealings whilst Jamal runs for political office against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who has also been forced to take up his family’s profession by his ailing father Tom (Robert Duvall). The blend between the criminal underworld and politics is intriguing and evocative of the HBO series The Wire, which also explores corruption and power.
The film also has visual similarities to The Wire in that it shows working-class districts of its city and how these people are left behind whilst the rich live in comfort. This is also evident between Veronica and her fellow widows as she and Harry lived well, depicted by their neutrally coloured high rise apartment (reminiscent of McQueen’s previous work Shame), whilst Alice and Linda struggle to get by. This relationship with each other provides an interesting dynamic in examining the difference in class between Veronica and the other widows.
There are other elements in Widows that are customary of Steve McQueen’s directorial style. The approach to the film is realistic, and occasionally utilizes long-takes (executed by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt). Though this particular technique has resulted in a captivating effect in the pairs’ previous work, it’s not as absorbing in their latest effort. A scene where this is obvious is when Jack Mulligan leaves a political rally in his car and the conversation with his assistant is heard but not seen. Instead of seeing the two conferring, the camera continues to focus on the car’s windscreen and derelict Chicago in the background. While undoubtedly a bold way to shoot a conversation, I found this detracting, as the audience cannot see the actors’ performances and cannot engage emotionally with them.
Even though the film has a gritty realism, there are actions and dialogue that come across as melodramatic. Performances from certain members of the cast are evident of over-exaggeration, particularly from Robert Duvall. Though his character serves a purpose, his performance felt stereotypical for an imperious father and he certainly was not helped the overstated dialogue written for his role. However, there are performances that stand out, and one of these is from Daniel Kaluuya. He absolutely steals every scene he is in and gives a remarkably subtle performance while conveying an intimidating presence.
Widows is an intriguing and enjoyable film which interestingly explores the connection between politics and immoral activities. However, those who admire Steve McQueen’s exploration of hard-hitting subjects may find this film slightly lighter in tone compared to his previous work. Despite being such an admirer myself, I do think Widows is his most accessible film to date and has more to be appreciated than to be critical of, though I would welcome a return to the deeply affecting subjects McQueen typically explores.