Movies 10 October 2018 | 12:03

LFF review: ‘Widows’ confirms McQueen’s genius

10 October 2018 12:03

It is no surprise at all that Steve McQueen’s fourth feature film, Widows, is a triumph. What is arresting about the movie that opens the London Film Festival this evening is the genre the Oscar-winning director has chosen for his first project since 12 Years a Slave (2013).

The source material, for a start, is unexpected. Lynda La Plante herself was ‘astonished’ to discover that McQueen was a huge fan of her 1980s mini-series about a group of women in London whose husbands are killed in an armed robbery – and turn to crime themselves.

Recruiting Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) to co-author the screenplay, Britain’s most celebrated auteur has transplanted the action to Chicago, and nestled his characters on a spider’s web of politics, corruption, racism and (of course) fierce emotional pressure.

The cast is almost ridiculously good: from Liam Neeson as Harry Rawlins, the weathered gang-leader whose plan goes wrong; Robert Duvall as an ageing power-broker determined to hold back what he see as the fading of white power in the city; and Daniel Kaluuya, truly chilling as an enforcer chasing Harry’s widow for money; to Colin Farrell as Duvall’s son, running for local office; Carrie Coon, best-known as Nora Dunst in The Leftovers (2014-17), here playing a more ambiguous role; and Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager [2016-]) who, on this showing, has the makings of a true film star.

But the film belongs to the awesome Viola Davis as Veronica, Harry’s widow, upon whose newly-toned shoulders the film’s heavy burden squarely lies. McQueen knows how good she is, and, from the first shot till the very last, lets the camera relish the majesty of her performance – her moments of crushed vulnerability matched by a steeliness that you are never quite sure will win the day.

Though Widows is undeniably a heist movie, it never becomes a caper: this is emphatically not Ocean’s Eight (2018) for arthouse audiences. Amid all the action, explosions and twisty plot-turns, McQueen’s trademark stillness is always present. He can pack more frozen energy into a tableau than any director working today. He loves the face caught in a mirror, the glacial emptiness of an upscale apartment, the vividness of a bruise dismissed in laughter.

The visual pitilessness that made Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) so uncomfortably memorable is still there. But it is now accompanied by a sense of mischief and a recognition that wit can compound rather than diminish the darkness of a film. Some have drawn comparisons with Robert Altman, but this is not a cinematic entanglement of characters, so much as a panoramic view of a mess of sin and deceit, and of the protagonists’ desperate efforts to clear it up.

Widows has already been hailed as one of the best films of 2018. But its greater significance is that it proves beyond doubt that McQueen is a director of versatility as well as preternatural talent – and that his best work, almost certainly, lies ahead.