As far as unlikely film news goes, word that artist-turned-director Steve McQueen would be following his heart-wrenching best picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave with a remake of Lynda La Plante’s ITV miniseries Widows was up there with Werner Herzog playing a villain opposite Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher. McQueen’s work to date, also including his exceptional debut Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and 2011’s Shame, a devastating drama about sex addiction, has been tough, serious-minded and unavoidably humourless. La Plante’s unapologetically pulpy crime novels and shows have always courted a wider audience with potboiler plots, audacious twists and feisty female characters.
Reportedly, McQueen was a fan at a young age of her 1983 six-parter and was impressed with the daring of the characters: women who planned and pulled off a dangerous heist. Even now, 35 years on, in a year that’s seen the all-female Ocean’s 8 A-listers score a hit with a gender-swapped addition to the defining heist franchise, there’s something that still feels fresh and under-seen about Widows (its most recent distant relative being 1996’s Set it Off).
In McQueen’s dazzling update, he transports events from London to Chicago and creates a world that might be more progressive than in the early 80s but still discounts and underestimates women. After a heist goes wrong, killing all men involved in a fire, their wives are forced to pick up the pieces. Veronica (Viola Davis) mourns for her husband Henry (Liam Neeson), the gang’s ringleader but her grief is soon replaced with fear when she’s threatened by criminal-turned-politician Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) whose money went up in flames. He gives her a month to return the $2m her husband stole and after finding his notebook, detailing his next heist, she tracks down the surviving wives to help pull off a job none of them are ready for.
McQueen has teamed up with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn for a script that undeniably benefits from a woman’s touch. There are so many different female characters who requires distinctive, lived in voices and their interplay requires such authenticity for us to invest. Aside from Davis, there’s also Elizabeth Debicki as an abused wife striving for liberation from men who mistreat her, along with her callous mother, played by Jacki Weaver; there’s Michelle Rodriguez as a woman whose business collapses when her late husband’s secrets come to light and Cynthia Erivo as a mother struggling to provide for her daughter, working however many jobs she can find. In a film that most definitely passes the Bechdel test countless times over, these women feel real, messy and intricately layered and while their situations might differ they all desire some form of financial independence. There’s little time for grief (“We have a lot of work to do, crying isn’t on the list”) but it comes in small, stark doses and there’s a need for intimacy and warmth that’s tangible in scenes where toughness is instead prioritised.
Right from a deftly woven introduction of the women and the heist that killed their husbands, it’s clear that McQueen is in confident control of the material. It’s such a thrill to see him at play with genre tropes and Widows glides like so few multiplex-packing thrillers do these days. He retains style without fussiness, choreographs action with a slick finesse and finds time within his muscular framework to infuse light social commentary, some dark comedy and, importantly, tight characterisation. There are so many characters at play here and McQueen and Flynn’s script manages to let them all breathe, giving each actor small defining moments and given the exceptional cast involved, it makes for a richly rewarding experience.
Davis has an effortless ability to fiercely command any scene that she’s in but she’s also equally adept at conveying unfiltered heartbreak and the moments where she allows herself to mourn, however brief, sting with sadness. Debicki, whose star presence seems to increase with every performance, delivers a powerful portrait of a woman finally gaining strength, Rodriguez, freed from the B-movie shackles that often restrict her, finds space for a more grounded turn while a standout Daniel Kaluuya brings toxic menace to every scene he’s in, as a man hot on their heels, simmering with violence. There are also small, impactful roles for Colin Farrell, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal, Lukas Haas and Robert Duvall.
When chaos arrives, it’s served in sharp, shocking doses (hugely benefitted by some hair-raising sound design) and in the real world that McQueen has created, it carries weight (a devastating flashback to the death of one character’s son will linger long after the credits). The two hour plus running time flies, in fact there’s so much here to enjoy that one wishes he’d kept it as a miniseries and it does mean there are some scenes that feel slightly rushed near the end, some showdowns that need more depth and some characters that need more closure.
But wanting a bit more rather than a lot less is a minor offence in what stands out as one of the most deliriously entertaining studio thrillers in years. McQueen’s bold, brutal film makes for a fourth slam-dunk in a row and I’ll wait with great excitement, and impatience, to see what he makes next.
Widows is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the UK on 6 November and in the US on 16 November. It also opens the London film festival on 10 October
• This article was amended on 17 September 2018. Shame was released in 2011, not 2008 as an earlier version said.