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BFI London Film Festival 2018 Review: Widows – “The script is sharp as a knife”

Steve McQueen got the 62nd BFI London Film Festival off to an explosive start with his female fronted heist. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s novel (and later 1980s ITV miniseries) with a tight script co-written by Gillian Flynn – McQueen’s Widows is transported from London to Chicago in a timely update.

In heist movies and crime films, people usually fit one of two bills: those who were born for a life of crime and those who had it thrust upon them. These women are very much the latter.

Before the title even rolls we see what led to four women becoming widows. A fatal heist with a hail of gunfire that ended the reign of Chicago’s most wanted thief, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his younger crew, intercut with the final domestic moments with their wives. Rawlings’ widow, Veronica (Viola Davis) barely has time to process her grief when she gets an unpleasant visit from wannabe local politician and criminal demanding the $2 million of his money that went up in smoke when Harry died. One look at Veronica’s plush penthouse might suggest she’s good for it. She’s not, Manning gives her one month to get it.

In lieu of a will, Harry left a notebook with meticulous details of his next heist, worth a cool $5million. Only she can’t really pull off a heist alone, so she assembles the other widows. All bar one (Carrie Coon’s Amanda) are in. They don’t know each other, much less if they can trust one another. But each one is dealing with the fall out from the heist that killed their husbands. Alice (Elizabeth Debiki) has nothing, her husband was violent, and on the dubious advice of her mother, becomes a paid “companion” to a bland, wealthy property developer (Lukas Haas) – so oily he practically slides off the screen. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) discovers all she’s inherited is her dead husband’s gambling debts, which has also claimed the rent money from her store, and she has small kids to take care of. Later, Linda brings in hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) as the fast and nimble getaway driver they need to complete the job.

The script is sharp as a knife, peppered with spiky humour and light on exposition, but there is enough character development that makes each of these women engaging to watch as an ensemble and on their own.

It’s Viola Davis who really steals the film though, communicating her rage, exhaustion and pain in few words and some unforgettable facial expressions gestures that reveal the trauma that came long before she was widowed.

The widows’ lack of criminal know-how keeps the tension high, and the entertainment rolling. When Alice asks where she’s supposed to get guns from, Veronica quips “this is America, figure it out”. Scenes with Alice buying a getaway van and the weapons are some of the film’s funniest.

Social commentary underpins the action. Corruption and racism run rife. Colin Farrell is toe-curlingly smarmy as Jimmy Mulligan, the crooked son of a racist politician Tom (Robert Duvall) who takes kickbacks, associates with criminals and exploits the poorer neighbourhoods. His political rival Jamal Manning is also involved in crime, flanked by his henchman brother, the menacing, and cruel Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya).

A mid-point twist stretches credulity and doesn’t really serve the story or its characters, though a more reveal about Veronica and Harry’s past is all-too-believable, and depressingly current.

But the heart and soul of this film is in its scenes with women. Watching their resourcefulness and ability just to get things done, even when things have gone drastically wrong is far more interesting than the mechanics of the heist itself. Widows is a highly entertaining crime thriller that is much more than a heist movie, it’s about survival.

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