Widows is potent material. It was the writing debut of former actress Lynda LaPlante and she did a fantastic job. Its first — and possibly still finest — incarnation was as British TV mini-series in 1983.
The concept is simple, and brilliant. A gang of crooks die during a heist. Their widows band together to pull off one last big score, using a plan left by the dead criminal mastermind...
A considerable success back in '83, Widows also had quite an afterlife. There was a sequel, Widows 2 in 1985, a sequel called She's Out in 1993, and an American mini-series ("They took over the family business and made out like bandits") in 2002.
It's great material and I was delighted to hear it was being made into a new feature film. I was less delighted when I learned the director was Steve McQueen.
McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) comes from a high-art background and I don't think he really understands drama, or perhaps even film. However, there's no denying he made one genius decision early on — to chose Gillian Flynn as his co-writer on the project.
Flynn wrote the novel Gone Girl and also the screenplay for the David Fincher film adaptation, both of which are stupendous. For Widows she brings a lot of richness and depth to the script, but there's a little too much coincidence in the plot for my liking.
The new film is well worth seeing, but it's frustrating. Every time it really starts to burn with excitement, McQueen throws a shovel full of sand on the fire, so to speak. The trouble is, he's trying so hard to be arty...
For example, there's a whirling circular tracking shot which makes the audience feel sea sick.
And also a fixed camera sequence, shot continuously and in real time, where we are stuck outside a car and unable to see the people speaking inside — a corrupt politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his decorative fixer Siobhan (Molly Kuntz).
There's some great dialogue here but it just doesn't work because we can't see Mulligan or Siobhan. It's an amazingly frustrating scene, and seems to break basic rules of film making.
Now, this was a careful and deliberate decision by McQueen, who wanted to show what a short drive it is from a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Chicago to Mulligan's posh suburban home.
Fair enough. Keep the camera mounted on the hood of the car. But don't make the vehicle a chauffeur driven limo with opaque smoked glass windows. Make it a car with windows we can see through and stick Farrell and Kuntz in the front — it makes perfect sense that Mulligan would drive himself in a less flashy vehicle, because he's just put on his man-of-the-people act.
As I say, Widows is frustrating. It's good, but it could have been great. Art films and thrillers need not be incompatible — look at John Boorman's Point Blank, a movie which shows just how far short Widows falls short.
(Image credits: Very thin pickings — just three variations of effectively the same poster — at Imp Awards. The Blu-ray cover of the original British mini series is from Network, who have a great catalogue and frequent sales. The poster for the 2002 US remake of the mini-series — which was directed by Geoffrey Sax, a very nice chap — is from IMDB.)