This crime drama clearly wants to stand out above its brethren.
It wants to matter, and it is quite insistent that we acknowledge its drive.
It has something to say about everything in its ambit: local authority politics, race relations, inner-city crime, familial expectations, abusive and/or exploitative marriages.
It has its fingers in many different sub-genres, too: heist, hard-boiled gangster, bad girl, urban decay, political corruption…
In short, it is a clearly ambitious piece of filmmaking in the guise of a big-screen Hollywood remake of a 1980s British TV series.
And ambition is usually not a bad thing.
Basically, the film is about the widows of four robbers who have to take up the “family business”, as it were, to get themselves out of a deep hole when their husbands are killed after a job.
They are: Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), widow of gang leader and mastermind Harry (Liam Neeson); Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), whose hubs Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) gambled away everything they owned before his expiry (in the archaic sense of snuffing it); and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), whose old man Florek (Jon Bernthal) was a wife-beater.
If it seems unflattering to define these women by what their spouses were, or did, well … that’s only because it is how they are painted in Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and director Steve McQueen’s (12 Years A Slave) screenplay.
Oh, there is a fourth widow: Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon), married to Rawlins “associate” Jimmy (Coburn Goss). His only apparent link to a felony is having a criminally nonexistent role, while she is present in the ensemble just to be the hook on which the film hangs a Big Pivotal Moment.
Flynn and McQueen’s inspiration was created by acclaimed crime writer Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect), spawned a second series and tie-in novels, and was also remade as a US miniseries in 2002.
By most accounts, the original – which I have not watched – was a sharply written, triumphant story of how the widows, perpetually viewed as incapable underdogs, refused to be dictated to by circumstance or society and decided to become the bosses of their own destinies.
In this new remake, however, the principal characters seem to be stuck in a rut of resignation to their respective lot in life, no matter how much the dialogue indicates otherwise.
Not even the evocatively expressive Davis manages to get a good grip on her character’s painful circumstances, manifesting rudeness (or “snappishness” as they might call it in a David E. Kelley dramedy) instead of the anger someone in her situation would be struggling with.
(There are many more reasons for that anger than just losing a career-criminal husband, as you will see in that Big Pivotal Moment and an ill-fitting, almost cynical flashback involving a young man in a convertible.)
And where its big caper is concerned, Widows falls maddeningly short too. With so many elements and characters to juggle – a lot of them superfluous despite the formidable talent involved – we just have to accept that everything somehow comes together through serendipity in the preciously brief time set aside for this sequence.
Oh, there is still a lot that is good about Widows. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is a chilling standout as the brother and merciless enforcer of a politically ambitious gangster, and I found Cynthia Erivo’s feisty single mother and eventual robbery accomplice Belle to be a much more consistent character than the widows themselves.
McQueen is also confident enough in his storytelling capabilities and cast to convey a lot of his intent without unnecessary dialogue – or, in one scene involving a conversation during a car ride, without even training his camera on the people who are talking.
But everything he sets out to do here just cannot sit comfortably within a restrictive running time of just over two hours.
This results in many of its numerous themes and sub-plots – let alone the filmmakers’ intended statements – getting only cursory treatment.
As such, Widows never settles into any particular groove long enough to be fully satisfying.
Widows is currently showing on GSC International Screens.
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry, Robert Duvall, Garrett Dillahunt