The loss of their criminal husbands during a botched heist leaves a trio of widows in the tightest of spots, as 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen transfers the 1983 British TV crime drama to contemporary Chicago. Reportedly, the Lynda La Plante original was a favourite of McQueen’s mum’s when he was a teenager in West London, but this new Americanised version brings with it a welter of added complications.
Here, the women’s daunting task of reimbursing the haul of cash lost in the failed job, or face potentially lethal consequences from some scary characters, is woven in and out of the city’s corrupt local politics. At the centre of it all, Viola Davis bites down hard on a career-defining role, ferocious as a woman who’s barely had time to grieve (for dodgy hubby Liam Neeson) before she’s battling for survival. It’s the kind of old-school Hollywood grand dame role – think Joan Crawford – that African-American actresses are rarely given the opportunity to play, and Davis certainly makes the most of it.
Her fellow widows, played by Michelle Rodriguez (who loses her clothing store to her late husband’s gambling debts) and Elizabeth Debicki (a domestic abuse victim who ends up in the “escort” trade), join Davis in a plot to steal the funds which will give all of them a second chance, but co-writers McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn are as interested in the story’s urban context as its caper-movie potential.
Colin Farrell’s wealthy, oleaginous local councillor, and icily threatening henchman Daniel Kaluuya, make their presence felt in the bigger picture. The film has things to say about the connections between money and power, both at home and in wider society, where women and ethnic minorities are so often at the mercy of controlling cash-rich men. This broad canvas makes the film feel slightly more like a vintage Sidney Lumet New York fresco, à la Prince of the City, rather than a femme-friendly caper flick of the order of Ocean’s 8, but it also remains pleasingly punchy and entertaining throughout.
Considering that McQueen came to cinema from an artworld background (he’s a previous Turner Prize winner, after all), he’s made a remarkable progression from the austere arthouse style of his 2008 debut feature Hunger to the classy, mainstream product on view here.
That’s not to suggest that he’s somehow sold out in the five years since he landed the Best Director Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. There are certainly a few audacious flourishes here, including one car-bonnet-mounted shot which succinctly shows the topography of Chicago’s social divisions.
Instead, it’s more a matter of commending him for crafting an accessible, slick, unashamedly commercial offering which delivers unexpected food for thought without neglecting genre-savvy twists, reveals and mounting suspense. All eyes, however, are on Viola Davis, whose determined intensity powers the whole movie, giving visceral thrust where it’s needed, and radiating a soulful humanity that’s the stuff of screen acting at its zenith.