Review: Steve McQueen’s feminist crime caper Widows is beautiful to look at and mostly makes sense

In 1983 Lynda La Plante, that most feminist of crime writers, created a rather strange TV series. Widows told the story of three bereaved spouses who meet at the funerals of their husbands, armed robbers killed during a heist. Money is owed, and the group’s matriarch decides the only way to clear this debt is to mount a heist of their own.

The young Steve McQueen (born 1969) might have watched it, because that’s the only reason I can think of that might explain his involvement here. Consider his track record: McQueen started out as a minimalistic video artist, and his movies have tended to reflect these refined beginnings. In Hunger, his stylish biopic of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), he made the Maze Prison look like a hideously experimental modern art gallery.

Shame, starring Fassbender and his magic flute, explored the priapic misery of sex addiction through an elegant prism of lurid reds and muted browns. Even 12 Years A Slave, his Oscar-winning slavery epic, had bold artistic visual flourishes that would not have been present had the film been directed by the usual workaday Hollywood hack.

Widows, for all its feminist undercurrents, is a genre picture, a Michael Mann movie turned inside out and hardly the kind of stuff you’d expect from McQueen. Predictably, though, he made the story his own.

He and his screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl etc) have transplanted La Plante’s moral tale to present day Chicago, where Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) lives in modest splendour with her rakish husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a heavyweight career criminal. How much does Veronica know about Harry’s ‘business’?

She must wonder where all the money comes from, and what happened to his nose, but perhaps prefers to turn a blind eye.

That, though, is no longer possible when Harry and three associates are killed in a firefight while attempting to steal several million dollars. That money belonged to rival criminals Jatemme and Jamal Manning (Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry), southside hard heads who soon turn up at Veronica’s penthouse demanding compensation.

Seeing no alternative, Victoria gathers together the other grieving partners and tells them she has a plan. Harry, an endearing artefact of the analogue age, kept all his robbery plans in a notebook accompanied by helpful diagrams: his next job could net the ladies $4m, enough to pay the debt and then some. And while one of the women wants nothing to do with it, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are desperate enough to want in. And the gang’s greatest asset is surprise because, as Veronica pithily puts it, “no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off”.

Balls they have, but this might not be enough to successfully negotiate a nasty scenario stalked by wildly staring sociopaths (Kaluuya) and crooked politicians. Colin Farrell, all Brooks Brothers’ suits and over-polished brogues, is Jack Mulligan, the world-weary, entitled son of dodgy Irish-American city alderman Tom (Robert Duvall).

Tom has made a tidy fortune through a lifetime’s venality and graft, and Jack is now expected to succeed him. But his path to the top is potentially thwarted when Jamal Manning (aforementioned hoodlum) decides to run against him for alderman. The Mulligans knew Harry Rawlins well, and their dirty business will soon become entangled with Veronica’s.

There are lots of good things in Widows, an extremely handsome, visually sombre film. The interactions of the plotting women are constantly contrasted with the deportment of criminal males: the ladies have an eccentric habit of actually listening to each other, their pecking order is more fluid, and they find it hard to remain indifferent to physical violence.

Davis is as good as you’d expect, Rodriguez handles a more serious role well, and Debicki brings humour and heart to the proceedings as the deceptively ditzy-seeming Alice. The plot, though, is needlessly diffuse, and the central story is almost overwhelmed at times by extraneous diversions — for instance, that not very credible political backstory.

In fact nothing much about Widows is credible, a fact that jars somewhat with its sententious mood.

But it’s so well made, that almost doesn’t matter.

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