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Does it take a non-American filmmaker to make a truly American film?
Does an outsider’s eye see more keenly? Past efforts by outsiders like Alfred
Hitchcock, John Schlesinger, and Roman Polanski provide compelling evidence
for this argument, and now British director Steve McQueen’s latest film Widows can be added to that list.

The story goes like this: when a crew of thieves led by Harry Rawlins (Liam
Neeson) comes a cropper during a botched raid and the men’s widows are left to deal with the fallout, including paying back a local gangster-turned-politician his missing millions. Under the guidance of Harry’s widow Veronica, played by Viola Davis, the women band together to pull off their own heist to make good, and in the process emerge from under the shadows of their errant husbands as liberated individuals. Working alongside Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, McQueen takes what on paper may look like a generic crime caper, and filters it through a lens of great candour and intimacy to deliver what feels like a female-centric take on a Martin Scorcese or Michael Mann crime epic.

The Chicago which these various characters inhabit, from members of local government down to single mothers working two jobs to support their children, is explored in a way that seems both wide-ranging and detailed. In a similar way to David Simon’s series The Wire, we become aware of how the disparate members of this society are helplessly intertwined in what often seems to be little more than a struggle for survival. At one point, Colin Farrell’s ambitious but tainted politician is told by his father and predecessor Robert Duvall to forget about trying to change anything and just concentrate on keeping his legacy alive. A single-shot scene of Farrell’s character travelling from the projects where he has been campaigning to the brownstone mansion where he lives – only a two minute drive away – highlights how even the most successful members of this society are only a short distance from hardship.

Performances across the board are of the highest quality, with Davis and
Elizabeth Debicki standing out. While the former is by turns steely and vulnerable, the latter is particularly engaging in a role that sees her character
Alice transform from a meek and directionless moll controlled by a violent
husband and a toxic mother, to a resolute and capable agent of her own free will. To listen to her inform the client who thinks that he is doing her a favour that her life is her own to ruin is one of the film’s most inspiring moments.

These moments of intimate emotion are what sets Widows apart from traditionally male-centric crime movies. Whereas the female characters of
Scorcese and Mann films have been criticised for being little more than ciphers
for the male characters to play against, by showing us events through the eyes of these disenfranchised women, McQueen and Flynn give us characters not just to root for, but to empathise with, and admire.

These women have all been dealt bad hands in life, but they refuse to be victims, and along with their determination to fight back against forces far bigger than them, it is their openly emotional and caring reactions to the situations they find themselves in that give the film its heart. Here the emotional consequences of betrayal are fully felt, and the importance of forming alliances with those you care for is shown to be the key to survival. When the film pulls back to give us a macro scale of events, it begins to feel less like a genre movie and more of a contemporary historical epic. Thoroughly modern, the story encompasses such current topics as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and the disenfranchisement of women and minorities in conservative-led America.

Considering its relatively slight runtime of just over two hours, the film packs in such a wealth of thoughtful subject matter so as to give it at times the flavour of a state of the nation report. It’s a keenly-observed study of time and place by a pair of filmmakers – one a Black Englishman, the other a woman – who might well consider themselves outsiders in America, but who are rapidly establishing themselves as powerful voices in its entertainment industry, and who seem determined to wield that power in the service of delivering stories that not just entertain, but that also give a voice to those who live at its margins.

Review by Matthew Blackwell

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