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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Widows – Review

Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018


Release Date: 16 November 2018
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: Gillian Flynn - Steve McQueen - [Based on the Lynda La Plante TV Series]
Cast: Viola Davis - Michelle Rodriguez - Elizabeth Debicki



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Posted September 16, 2018 by

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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Widows – Review

Widows by Steve McQueen begins with a passionate embrace between Viola Davis’ Veronica and Liam Neeson’s Harry. They’re a couple obviously in love but this is a Steve McQueen film, scripted by Gillian Flynn, and based on a Lynda La Plante television series. Expect the unexpected.

Toronto International Film Festival 2018: Widows - Review

Courtesy of TIFF

Intertwined with introductory scenes of several couples and their domestic situations, we are thrust into the midst of a chaotic heist. McQueen takes his time to reveal who the players in the heist are but even if one hadn’t watched the trailers, they would know.

It isn’t long before we get to know the widows of the title and their unfortunate new circumstances. Each woman is in dire straits, but the stakes go up when Veronica’s life is threatened by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning is running for office against Colin Farrell’s smarmy Jack Mulligan, and both parties have yet-to-be-revealed connections with the heist.

McQueen intermingles personal interactions and travails with multiple threads involving the heist, political gambles and betrayal. There are many players in this story and invariably some of the characters feel short-changed while others are engrossing presences who keep the audience engaged.

The first act has a few bits of clunky dialogue, exacerbated by sub-par performances. However, near the final third of the film, the ensemble cast remind us just why they are the top performers in the industry. The rocky start is all but forgotten as the audience is sucked into the tension of the world onscreen.

Of all the actors, Elizabeth Debicki is absolutely stunning as the transformative Alice – her character sees the most growth and she is outstanding in her arc. Davis is spectacular as always but this role is sadly not her best. Perhaps it is down to the writing in question, but she portrays her character as stoic far too often. It is not as  effortless a delivery as we have become accustomed to seeing from her.

I was disappointed in how little substance Michele Rodriguez was given in her role. At every turn it felt like her meaty scenes were offered to the other actors and she was left behind. I wanted to see her character face her anger and her determination but she didn’t get enough screen time.

Not to be overly negative, but does Colin Farrell ever act as anyone else other than himself? Robert Duvall outshone him in every scene they were in and that undid the potency of Farrell’s character. Meanwhile, divested of his regular garb as Atlanta’s Paper Boi, Brian Tyree Henry as the steely devil Jamal Manning was a welcome surprise.

Courtesy of TIFF

Courtesy of TIFF

For me, however, the stand out was Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Jamal’s brother, Jatemme Manning. Hollywood has struck gold with his talent. The menacing evil that he conveys through his expressions and dialogue delivery was frightening to watch. I am concerned that so much brutality is enacted by an African-American actor, though. None of the other characters are even half as violent, but the majority of them aren’t good guys either, yet, on the page, one could easily point to Jatemme as the film’s villain.

Widows is an arresting film with stunning cinematography – we expect to be mesmerized by McQueen’s camerawork and his beautiful framing is so enchanting that one often forgets about the story. Some of his techniques work better than others – the clever use of mirrors helps reflect the personalities and the changing lives of the characters.

But, during a character-building scene between Jack and his assistant, the camera is rigged to the bonnet of the car and the audience is forced to watch the changing facade of the wards in Chicago. This technique felt distracting and I kept wondering if the conversation between the two characters would have been half as convincing were they featured on screen. Molly Kunz as Jack’s assistant is the least credible character in the film, by far, and the scene doesn’t pack the punch that it should have.

Partway through the film we are given a twist that many of us didn’t see coming. The trouble is, it overly convoluted a plot that needed to be streamlined. What works in one medium of storytelling doesn’t necessarily translate to another and Flynn and McQueen, of all people, should know that. I felt like the twist was kept in to justify the actors’ salaries but what it led to was a saggy middle act.

Courtesy of TIFF

Courtesy of TIFF

But, the tense and pacey final act completely justifies Hollywood’s love for McQueen. The high-octane action is tied in with subtle clues from previous scenes which make for particularly enthralling viewing. The denouement was met with applause from the press and industry officials at the Toronto International Film Festival screening I attended.

It was truly marvellous to watch a star-studded cast of female characters who are complicated, unlikeable and, often, very real. I believe the creators of the film should have tried to push the boundaries even further – why not have a woman on the heist team leaving behind a wife? How about making Manning or Mulligan female? Maybe diversifying the ethnicities of the characters? Films like this are a step in the right direction, at least with respect to the cast, and some of the crew. But, Hollywood can and should aim higher. TIFF 2018 had several films showcasing diversity and inclusivity, themes integral to this year’s programme and Widows fit right in by embracing women as its protagonists.

While McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was a hard-hitting attempt at shining a light on past and present racism in America, this film subtly includes the many discriminatory prejudices people face every day irrespective of their status. There are jaw-dropping jolts of realism intertwined with overlong attempts at characterization. Perhaps the hype around the film got the better of me but I felt that Widows was an uneven finished product. Despite its faults, the climactic finish was a thrilling culmination of a carefully plotted story and characters that one could end up rooting for.


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Lestat de Lioncourt
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