It really is a huge pity that Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’ wasn’t the commercial success it deserved to be. Despite an insane cast, a top-tier director and almost unanimous critical acclaim, it failed to bring in the audiences or awards attention that was expected of it. Why that is the case is still up for debate, because the film itself, an adaptation of the Lynda La Plante novel and 1983 UK miniseries also based on it, looks and feels like a winner, an arresting mix of arthouse sensibilities and genre filmmaking.
The premise is simple and an absolute banger - three women who have recently lost their husbands during a heist gone wrong are forced into a heist job of their own to clear the debts their husbands left behind. That alone, well executed as it is, would be enough to make ‘Widows’ a must-watch, but McQueen, along with co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (‘Gone Girl’) use the premise as the basis for a far more complex meditation on the state of race and class in America, and how those two things are inextricably linked. Each of the women comes from a different ethnic background - Veronica, the leader (Viola Davis, ‘The Help’, ‘Fences’) is a wealthy African American woman still left marginalised by her skin colour despite her standing; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, ‘The Fate of the Furious’), a latina mother and small business owner on the brink of losing everything she has; and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki, ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’), a young woman of Polish descent, abused and dismissed by everyone around her. The team is completed by Belle (Cynthia Erivo, ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’), an African American single mother forced to work multiple jobs to keep her small family afloat. For these four women, completing this heist isn’t just about settling a debt but buying them freedom, giving themselves the means to actually survive rather than be swept up in the detritus left by their husbands. Not only does this make the tension of ‘Widows’ all the more palpable, but gives the film stronger purpose and a greater sense of immediacy, built around contemporary characters with very real and relatable concerns.
Surrounding them, a larger battle over race and class is being fought, as the alderman seat for the poorest area of Chicago is contested between Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell, ‘The Beguiled’, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’), the latest Irish-American in a wealthy dynasty that has long held the seat, and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’), an African American man hoping to swing the seat away from the privileged. Their intentions are honest but their manner is not, often using swindling and violence to take their opponent down at the knees. Their lack of integrity stands in stark contrast against the widows themselves, but ultimately it all becomes a battle for survival, one where the only thing that defines anyone’s humanity is how few or many bodies they are willing to leave in their wake.
It’s such a credit to McQueen (and proof of what a master filmmaker he is) that despite the complicated politics and mechanisms of the plot, ‘Widows’ never feels confused or ridiculous. In fact, this is a film fashioned with the sharpest of edges, a crisp piece of genre storytelling where the subtext enriches rather than overcomes it. Along with Flynn, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, McQueen maintains a palpable sense of tension and danger, a film threatening to erupt at any second, combining beautifully staged action set pieces with the kind of careful characterisation and psychological poetry we’ve so come to associate with his work. The cast are also absolutely exemplary, with Davis, Debicki, Rodriguez and Erivo all delivering astounding and heartbreaking performances, supported by fantastic-as-ever Farrell, another star-making turn from Brian Tyree Henry, a terrifying performance from Daniel Kaluuya (‘Get Out’) as Jamal’s brother Jatemme, and great work from Liam Neeson, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall and Garret Dillahunt. It really is a dream cast, and McQueen doesn’t waste an ounce of them, using their collective brilliance to elevate the film even further.
... ultimately it all becomes a battle for survival, one where the only thing that defines anyone’s humanity is how few or many bodies they are willing to leave in their wake.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, ‘Widows’ could have been a forgettable colour-by-numbers thriller relying on a clever premise, but his hands fashion it into more than that: a film of tremendous thematic weight and enormously timely, depicting in microcosm a country at a cultural turning point. It proves what can happen when a great storyteller takes on a genre premise, how it can be elevated to more than it appears, both in its ideas and its execution. ‘Widows’ hurts in all the ways it should, cuts deep where you hope it will, and leaves you breathless and enormously satisfied by the end. Its time in cinemas may have not done it the justice it deserves, but hopefully its place as a modern American classic is just around the corner.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘Widows’ really shines on 4K, with a 2160p 2.39:1 transfer taken from a native 4K DI that is subtle and absolutely gorgeous. The film was shot on 35mm, so there’s an incredible amount of detail in the image that is captured by the 4K scan, including a lovely organic grain field. ‘Widows’ has a slightly desaturated look, with strong emphasis on colder colours, and this is brought out beautifully with the HDR. It might not seem like the kind of film to show off the advantages of 4K, but it does show how the format can carefully preserve the artistic intentions of great filmmakers. The transfer is accompanied by an astonishing Dolby Atmos 7.1 track that’s incredibly impressive. The clarity is often staggering, bringing out elements of the sound design that I hadn’t noticed when I saw ‘Widows’ in cinema, such as the careful calibration of human breath. This is a really subtle and terrific track, emphasising what a symphony this sound design is, and always perfectly balanced.
The set also comes with a standard Blu-ray with a 1080p transfer and DTS-HD MA 7.1 track.
As usual, all the special features are included only on the standard Blu-ray of the film, but while there isn’t much on offer, the chief extra, the multi-part feature ‘Widows Unmasked: A Chicago Story’ (52:10) turns out to offer a pretty substantial look at the making of the film. Interviews with many of the major cast and crew cover the adaptation process, the casting, the special effects and production design, but with a level of analysis and depth that only emphasise the intelligence that went into this film. It’s a terrific companion to ‘Widows’ for those who want to know more about the mechanics of the film itself. The set is rounded off with a Gallery and the film’s theatrical trailer.