Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki, Widows is the talk of Tinseltown and tipped as an awards season favourite. But the story of women who plan a heist after their husbands die isn’t based on a weighty novel, or an original idea from director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave).
It’s inspired by the British mini-series (1983-85) that aired on ITV and launched the career of crime writer Lynda La Plante. It’s an elegant and ambitious adaptation that transposes the action from London to Chicago — just one of many differences between the two works. MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW…
Originally played by Ann Mitchell, head widow Mrs Rawlins is the lynchpin of the operation, but she is now played by Viola Davis and called ‘Veronica’ rather than ‘Dolly,’ which is a bit 1980s East End, innit. The film Widows opens with a striking shot of Henry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) in bed with his wife in their stark white bedroom; it’s clear that colour and race are going to be key themes as the story progresses. In the first TV series, the fourth woman to join the gang — Bella — was black, but after tragic actress Eva Mottley left in a flurry of controversy, she was replaced by a white actress, Debby Bishop, for Series 2. Weird. In Series 1, Bella was also a former prostitute stripper clad in cheap kinky leather. Fast forward to 2018 and Bella is now Belle, a hairdresser and single mother and played by Cynthia Erivo. So grubby pub strip clubs scenes are out.
While the widows all knew each other in the series, McQueen and his co-writer Gillian Flynn have decided to make them strangers, mostly ignorant of the details of their husbands’ illegal operations. And so Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) meet each other for the first time when Veronica hires them, upping the tension and meaning the audience gets to know them as they figure each other out, too.
While the male characters in the TV series were mostly cops and lovers whose lives revolved around the local pub, McQueen adds politicians, and several of them, giving Widows a topical political backdrop. Crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) is running for office against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose father Tom (Robert Duvall) is a right-wing local politician. The culture clash between the two candidates is enhanced by Manning’s hot-headed brother, played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya.
THE HEIST PLOT
Let’s avoid major spoilers and just say that the target of the robbery in the movie Widows is different, and more complicated. However, the women still dress up like men, and a few of the planning scenes are really similar to their small screen counterparts. There are also some twisty elements in the TV series that find their way onto the big screen, albeit in a distinctly Steve McQueen kind of way.
THE SEXUAL POLITICS
Lynda La Plante’s script definitely had a feminist bent and was reasonably progressive for the time, but of course, the world has changed. So the scene in which the sleazy cop comes around for a non-consensual fondle of Shirley’s breasts is out. In place of aspiring glamour model Shirley, we now have Elizabeth Debicki’s more complex Alice Gunner, whose immigrant mother (Jacki Weaver) pushes her into dating rich men for cash. Alice’s gradual empowerment is one of the film’s most engrossing themes.
The tussling of the ’80s series looks quite quaint compared with the occasional but hard-hitting violence of the new Oscar contender. Set and shot in contemporary Chicago, it shows the grim reality of gun and gang culture in several shocking scenes. Daniel Kaluuya is a seriously nasty piece of work in this movie.
Just like her small screen counterpart, Veronica Rawlins has a beloved white dog that goes everywhere with her and plays an important part in a revelatory scene. The pampered pooch is also stuck in the middle of tussles with criminals: Jamal Manning threatens her when he comes around to put the screws on on Veronica. But we are happy to say that, unlike its unfortunate TV inspiration, this canine movie star is more likely to be checked into a doggy hotel than doggy heaven. Not everything is worse in 2018, it seems.
Widows hits UK screens on November 6, US cinemas on November 16, and AU screens on October 22.