Film review: Widows elevated from conventional heist status by Steve McQueen's brio

Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell feature in Oscar winner Steve McQueen's stylish heist movie Widows but it's the central performances of Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki that steal the show, writes Damon Smith

Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows

DESPERATE times demand resourceful women in Widows, a glossy heist thriller based on the 1980s TV series created by Lynda LaPlante.

Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, and director Steve McQueen co-write a script which transplants the intrigue and betrayal from London to the gleaming apartments and deprived neighbourhoods of Chicago.

They have sharp ears for snappy dialogue – "I'm in the driving seat, I just don't have a set of wheels"; "He should have loved you more and the bookies less" – and position powerful female protagonists at the centre of a muscular film that might otherwise be heavy on testosterone.

Two breathlessly staged robberies, which quicken the pulse, bookend the picture but it's a slow burn in between as the plot manoeuvres characters into position for a blood-spattered end game like pawns on a chessboard.

McQueen cannot resist attention-grabbing flourishes. A politician's journey home by car from a campaign appearance could be accomplished without fanfare. Instead, the Oscar-winning director of 12 Years A Slave captures the drive in a single fluid take, seemingly positioning his lens on the bonnet of the car as it travels through city streets while we listen to audio of a heated conversation in the back seat.

It's an impressive piece of camerawork but rather indulgent, and such excesses contradict the central female character's assertion that a group of women can pull off a robbery because they go unnoticed about their lives.

Career criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) spearheads the theft of two million dollars with a three strong crew comprising Florek Gunner (Jon Bernthal), Carlos Perelli (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy Nunn (Coburn Goss).

The job goes sour in a hail of Swat team bullets and the robbers perish in an acetylene-fuelled fireball. The money is incinerated with them.

Shortly after Harry's wife Veronica (Viola Davis) buries her husband, she receives an unwelcome visit from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). He is standing for election in the city's eighth district against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of crooked politician Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall).

Jamal claims Harry stole the two million dollars from him and he wants Veronica to replace the missing funds or suffer grievous consequences at the hands of his sadistic brother (Daniel Kaluuya).

Armed with a notebook containing plans for Harry's next robbery, Veronica assembles a new crew including Carlos's wife Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Florek's wife Alice (Elizabeth Debicki).

Widows is a stylish portrait of crime and punishment, distinguished by spirited performances from Davis, Rodriguez and Debicki.

Tony Award-winning theatre star Cynthia Erivo is excellent in support as the babysitter recruited as a getaway driver.

Strip away McQueen's brio and what remains is a high quality, conventional thriller with a couple of satisfying narrative twists.

WIDOWS (15, 130 mins) Thriller/Drama/Romance/Action. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Goss, Robert Duvall. Director: Steve McQueen

RATING: 7.5/10

Released: November 6 (UK & Ireland)

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