All posts by Jane Freebury

Everybody Knows

Review by © Jane Freebury

M, 2 hr 13 mins

Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre

3.5 Stars

In the ambience of the Spanish countryside, star couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, look so completely at home it is easy to forget that in Everybody Knows they are being directed by a filmmaker from a very different part of the world. Though he says that he felt very much at home in Spain when on a family holiday some years ago, the acclaimed writer-director Asghar Farhadi hails of course from Iran.

Now who wouldn’t feel at home in Spain? Spanish people can be so warm, expressive and direct, and what’s not to love about a country so in touch with its past and with so much zest for life in the present.

Be that as it may, it’s wonderful that this celebrated filmmaker is able to work outside Iran. He has done so before. He worked with French actors on his film The Past set partly in Paris—though it may be a while before he works in the US. Despite his green card he will not be visiting the land of Trump.

In Everybody Knows, Farhadi remains in familiar genre territory, that is, exploring the tensions within couples and within families, but on this occasion his characters are not Iranian, but Spanish, and they are free to express. To audiences in the West at least, Farhadi’s finely wrought, unsettling Iranian melodramas have a restraint and an ambiguity that resists easy interpretation and provokes questions.

Not so, Everybody Knows. The psychological and covert here take second place to the overt, the expressive, and mystery pertains to characters out-of-frame.

Events revolve around the character of Laura (Cruz), who is visiting from Argentina with her two children to attend her sister’s wedding, though not with husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) for the time being. It is joyful reunion that culminates in a big dance party, captured on a hovering drone, in the village square. Farhadi, although from a country where singing and dancing in public are banned, handles these scenes with ease and confidence.

One by one the characters reveal their foibles. Family patriarch is a rather grumpy old man. Laura’s teenage daughter, Irene (an exuberant Carla Campra), has a wild streak. Other associates of the family, like Paco (Bardem) and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie) who run a successful vineyard, we get to know more slowly.

When Irene disappears during the wedding celebrations and her kidnappers begin to send threatening messages, the family relationships are stripped bare. It’s when Cruz comes into her own as the distraught mother.

Initially, it is outsiders who come under suspicion. There are multiple possible suspects working among the migrant grape pickers in Paco’s vineyards. For some time, the film entertains this possibility, and it makes for tense kidnap drama, though the film falls short of the appellation of thriller.

If some family were apprehensive about Laura’s return, others were delighted to see her, while there were also those who, in their way, were prepared. There is a backstory that would have made Everybody Knows that much more interesting.

With its gorgeous leads and rural backdrop, it has convincing performances with tense moments. Only this film doesn’t have that finely wrought complexity so distinctive of Farhadi, in which much is actually left unsaid. That’s what is missing. Finely wrought, high intensity drama that unwinds like a coiled spring, leaving matters unresolved and leaving us high and dry.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Capernaum

M, 2 hours, subtitled

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

Set in contemporary Lebanon, Capernaum takes its name from a town that stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in biblical times.  With a nod to the past and to the future, it’s an intriguing title and an apt one. In the ancient languages of the region it meant ‘chaos’.

The opening shots are serene enough, high in the sky above the noise and confusion below. But wait, the first images look like encampments where roofs of plastic sheeting are secured by rubber tyres. A reminder that Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Capernaum is a mix of family melodrama and political activism, filmed on location in the jumble of disadvantage on the streets of Beirut. It is where Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea) and his siblings spend most of their time, selling refreshments to boost the family income instead of attending school.

The parents are hopeless. Father, Selim (Fadi Youssef) does little but sit around, while the mother, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), has an ingenious method for smuggling drugs into prison in the laundry.

Even that doesn’t yield enough money. To Zain’s dismay, his parents sell off his precious sister, 11-year-old Sahar (Haita Izzam), to the weird adult son of their landlord. When they exchange her for a few hens and some help with the rent, it’s the trigger for 12-yer-old Zain to leave home.The boy’s forlorn journey to who knows where ends in a shanty town that is home to people without papers, like himself.

A young Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who he encounters at the funfair takes him in and he cares for her toddler son Yonas (gorgeous Boluwatife ‘Treasure’ Bankole) while she goes to work. The unlikely arrangement works well until the day Rahil doesn’t return home.

It leaves Zain and Yonas to fend for themselves, a terrifying prospect, with danger on all sides. The time these two spend together is the film’s emotional centre, captured with a weaving, subjective camera from Christopher Aoun that establishes powerful rapport.

Rapport and compassion is what this film from Nadine Labaki is all about. She explored the women’s perspective on the civil strife that has racked Lebanon for decades in her first feature, Caramel, set in a hairdressing salon. In this, her third feature, the examines the plight of children of displaced families, and the responsibility of parents towards the children that they give life.

The boy who plays Zain, Zain Al Rafeea, is himself a refugee who fled southern Syria with his family. There is a story about him on the UNHCR website. Neither he, nor any of the other performers in Capernaum were actors. As director Labaki puts it, her entire cast were simply playing ‘their own lives’.

The courtroom scenes that bookend the film, in which Zain sues his parents for gross neglect, are unlikely in reality. But they are a powerful and thought-provoking device to bring to bear on parental, and community, responsibility. Labaki has a small role here as Zain’s lawyer.

Capernaum makes a stirring plea for compassion and is such a visceral, potent experience that it has high impact. With amazing performances from its beautiful young leads, this is an exceptional testament to the will to live.

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2019

You cannot take France out of cinema nor the cinema out of France. French filmmakers were among the pioneers, and from the very start in silent films to the ‘new wave’ and since, the movies have always been intrinsic to French culture.

Today as filmmakers scramble to be cutting edge, digital technology can often drive what we see on screen at the expense of stories about real people. It is this humanist tradition that we can count on at the French Film Festival every year.

Juliette Binoche and Guillaune Canet in Non-Fiction

Highlights of the exciting and diverse program of 54 films include the latest from celebrated directors, like The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard), High Life (Claire Denis), Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas), By the Grace of God (Francois Ozon), and The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard). And there is a retrospective of Alain Resnais’ avant-garde classic, Last Year at Marienbad.

Otherwise you might home in on the latest films from exciting new talent like Amanda (Mikhael Hers), In Safe Hands/Pupille (Jeanne Herry), and thrillers Knife + Heart (Yann Gonzales) and Revenge (Coralie Fargeat).

Then again, there are plenty of opportunities to laugh with comedies that address various personal crises  light-heartedly, such as Sink or Swim, Kiss & Tell and The Trouble With You, or you can simply share the joy of the music festival in Le Grand Bal.

Each to his own.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is screening across Australia from 7 March to 10 April. In Canberra, the AFFFF is hosted by Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton

The Mule

Rated M, 1 hr 57 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Capitol Cinema Manuka, Hoyts Woden and Belconnen, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

This is the latest film from an actor whose career began in the 1950s. He has maintained a high profile as a performer and filmmaker each decade since which in itself it gives us pause for thought. That’s a very long time in the public eye, but Clint Eastwood has kept ahead of the curve.

What has he in store for us this time?

As Eastwood approaches his 90th year, he has done his own version of ‘breaking bad’, in which he repeatedly commits execrable crime but justifies it to himself – we surely can’t believe he is duped – with largesse for family members and worthy organisations like veterans of foreign wars.

The Mule is the story of Earl Stone (Eastwood), a grandfather and noted horticulturist, who becomes a courier for a Mexican drug cartel, making deliveries to Chicago. How could anyone suspect that such a venerable person might have cocaine stowed in duffel bags among the pecans in the back of his pickup truck?

No one could suspect him because of his age and clean record, and it gives him a free pass on the highway, working under the nose of the team from the DEA, led by Bradley Cooper’s agent Colin Bates. Even the ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) who we expect knew him well doesn’t catch on when Earl tells her the truth.

The concept is not a fanciful, either. The Mule is based on a media report that is hard to improve upon.

In 2014, The New York Times ran the story of one Leo Sharp, a veteran and horticulturist famous for his day lilies who became a drug mule, and eventually the cartel’s star recruit. Sharp’s name is changed to Earl Stone in the film, written by Nick Schenk, the screenwriter Eastwood worked with on Gran Torino, another film in which he plays, with some alarming ease, a bigoted old codger.

It’s a role tailor made for Eastwood. Relaxed, behind the wheel of his Ford he looks the part as much as he did on the back of a horse. The laid-back soundtrack suits the languid pacing, though running time is indulgently long. As a crime drama it is largely amiable and easy going, with little tension, and nothing like the high-stakes game that drug running is in real life.

This is because The Mule, with its incidental threesome and gun-toting criminals, is less crime drama than it is a family drama. Earl regrets his failures as a husband and father. It is noteworthy that Eastwood’s daughter Alison has a key role as Iris, who is—wait for it—Earl’s estranged daughter.

Earning a small fortune with every delivery, Earl uses it to buy back the family home and to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding, but he also gives of his time, the thing that was so much harder for him to yield to those who needed him.

Eastwood so often manages to weave social commentary into his films. It’s what that makes them resonate, time and again. Here he is an elderly, working class male with racist and chauvinist attitudes, who is trying to learn a few life lessons in a fast-changing world that offers shrinking opportunity to him and his kind.

An eye to the big picture seems to me why, over the long years, Eastwood often has something to say beyond the plot and character. This is not his best work, but it encourages thought rather than satiation. When you think about it, the simple cowboy of Rawhide has come a long way.

Jane’s reviews can also be read at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and heard on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Diaries)

 

 

 

 

The Favourite

 

MA 15+, 1 hour 59 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

4.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A power struggle at the top. Deadly serious for those involved but for observers from afar, it’s a spectacle that can have all the makings of comedy.

So it is with The Favourite, where two women vie for favour at the court of Queen Anne in England three centuries ago. In the hands of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, a rollicking and irreverent take on the historical drama, that veers deliciously towards the absurd. It’s a load of outrageous fun, and one of the best satires of the ruling class since Peter O’Toole had the House of Lords in his sights.

Lanthimos, a director with a gift for the cryptic, makes distinctive dramas that offer a variety of meaning. More’s the fun of it.

His film from 2009, Dogtooth, was a sinister take on family in Greek society, while his first English language film, Lobster, took aim at the tyranny of social conformity, among other things. Not that successfully, in my view.

Lanthimos often writes as well as directs, when he isn’t working on plays, music videos or the television commercials that probably help him keep his touch light.

Although he didn’t write the screenplay this time, Lanthimos is at one with the spirit his writers, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, bring to it. They have turned the carefully curated British period drama on its head with this jaunty, juicy farce. The historical authenticity of locations and costumes for the period is impressive. As if the tall wigs and rouged courtiers weren’t preposterous enough, Lanthimos and his DOP play with camera angles and fish eye lens to even more bizarre effect.

The ailing and isolated queen, Anne, played brilliantly by Olivia Colman, despairs that she has not been able to perpetuate the Stuart line with an heir. The 17 pet rabbits she keeps in cages in her bedchamber bring some consolation for the multiple still births, miscarriages and young lives lost.

Her close confidante is the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), whose husband is often away keeping the neighbours under control. On this occasion he is fighting the French, and Sarah is pressing for the campaign to get better funding. A prominent Tory, the Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult) is opposed to increasing tax to make this happen, and doing his best to undo the campaign of persuasion that the duchess conducts in the queen’s private quarters, and in her bed.

The upstart Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), stumbles into this fevered mix. As a relative of Sarah’s, she had hopes for some favours but she is swiftly relegated to the scullery. Unfortunately for Sarah, cousin Abigail makes a saucy wench when she gets half a chance. It is a fatal mistake. The Queen appoints Abigail to keeper of the privy purse and takes her to her bed.

This may or may not be true, but as a study in the struggle for power and influence it is witty and entertaining. Although it’s the men like the Earl who hold power in parliament and at court, it’s the women who explore the ways and means to exert influence. In terms of gender roles, not so flattering, but it could just as easily be told the other way round because it would be difficult to contest the underlying truth. A witty expose on the lot of us.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Roma

MA 15+, 2 hrs 15 mins

Netflix

Review by ©Jane Freebury

5 Stars

In all the best possible ways, Roma reminded me of being a film student again. Of seminar weekends sitting watching something from the archive that proved a revelation. A meditation on the personal and collective human experience, wonderful to watch, like this film here.

Roma is not a film from an unknown, of course, or a first-timer with something new to say. Far from it. The most recent film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron was Gravity, an immersive, spellbinding journey in space that was huge at the box office, worldwide.

This film is something very close to the director’s heart, a story from his childhood in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. The family home, the street on which he lived and other locations in the city are meticulously recreated to look the way they did in the early 1970s.

Attention to detail contributes to Roma’s distinctive look and style. Filmed in widescreen, in digital black and white, it is an intimate story yet mostly told in long shot. Instead of using the close up much to establish connection, there are long sweeping, panning shots that keep everyone and everything in view, as though they are all of a piece. And editing is so minimal, and pacing so unhurried, you could be lulled into thinking it is in real time. The rhythms of everyday life get the dignity they deserve.

Besides directing and co-producing, Cuaron was writer, cinematographer and co-editor here.

Cuaron’s young self is not the main character, either. It is the former maid and nanny who looked after him and his brothers and sister, while their parents were often absent without leave. The narrative begins with the marriage between Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, on the point of breaking up.

After a long day at the hospital, Antonio enters the driveway in his Ford Galaxie, too large for the space. Not without comedy, he inches in tortuously, avoiding a scratch on the duco, but squishing the wheels over the piles of dog doo-doo scattered around. It is a constant source of irritation to Sofia, unreasonably so, and besides, Borras has nowhere else to do his business.

The family home is a generous space where children have large bedrooms, while the maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, an untrained actor like most of the cast here), and her domestic companion the cook, Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia), share a tiny room at the top of steep stairs above the roof and the washing lines. We note this and a hundred other inequities.

Netflix

Cuaron collaborated with his former nanny and family maid during screenwriting. He dedicates this film to Libo and to her class, domestic workers who have looked after and been surrogate mothers to generations of the wealthy middle-class. A dramatic scene on a beach with surging surf demonstrates the risks she would go to for the children.

Cleo’s affair with an intense young man makes connection between events outside the home and political upheaval at the time, like a notorious massacre in the city of student demonstrators by paramilitaries. Their brief affair results in a pregnancy that only embeds her deeper within the family.

After his films on the epic scale, Gravity and Children of Men, and since the very memorable Y Tu Mama Tambien, an intimate, sensitive portrait of coming-of-age, Roma is a powerful reminder of the scope of Cuaron’s talent.

With its roots in both poetic realism and neo-realism, Roma is also a reminder of what cinema can be when not driven by commercial imperatives.

 

Jane’s reviews are also published by the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Vice

M, 2 hrs 13 mins

All cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

3 stars

 

Controversial and reviled, American politician Dick Cheney is fair game for filmmaker Adam McKay who had his say on bad corporate behaviour in The Big Short, in 2015. Very entertaining it was too. A deft explanation of how the global financial crisis came to pass, leaving us in no doubt about the amoral behaviour in financial services that had such a big hand in it.

For former Saturday Night Live writer, McKay, a natural satirist who knows exactly how to take down anybody and anything, Cheney presents rich material.

Despite a long career in politics – notably as a chief of staff, a former defence secretary and a vice president  – and a key role in US strategies leading to and after the Iraq War, Cheney has apparently had little to say for himself.

Vice gleefully and unreservedly makes the most of this with Christian Bale as Cheney, big as a whale, filling the screen. However, little else emerges from this opaque political personality, who is presented yet again as a shadowy space that others have become accustomed to filling.

I went along to Vice to get the goods, as I had in The Big Short. Who was this man, committed Republican and Washington insider during the most controversial and destructive period in recent US political history? On the man and his view of the world, Vice offers scant insight.

Turning to the internet, I found there was more to him. It’s interesting to see that aside from a penchant for pastries, a predisposition to heart attacks and getting pulled over while driving under the influence when young, he has been elected five times to the US House of Representatives.

In its errors of omission, Vice would have us believe that Cheney was a bit of a no-hoper, a no-hoper with an ambitious wife. Someone who somehow or other struck it lucky after he failed at Yale (twice actually), after which he took a job as a linesman, before he proceeded, inexplicably, to an internship in the US administration.

Actually, Cheney has two degrees in political science, and was once registered for a doctorate. His formidable wife Lynne, played here by Amy Adams, went on to get hers, and has subsequently written a raft of books on American history.

Coy disclaimers at the start of Vice, that they did their ‘f—-ing best’ to present the facts, only sidesteps the issue of omission here.

Entertaining and audacious it is, with a brave central performance from Bale (also in The Big Short) as the dubious ideologue and with terrific support from Adams as his wife and Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld. Much of the early low-angle camerawork ensures that everyone looks their least attractive. While Sam Rockwell, apparently without any prosthetic at all, nails it as George W Bush.

So who, in an unfortunate sign of these times, wants to complain when a film is this entertaining? It depends on what you are looking for.

Ultimately, Vice, in the style of broad brush cartoon, rehearses the widely held view that Cheney is an opaque politician, a behind-the-scenes operator who is insufficiently accountable. We have been aware of this reputation for a long time so more insight into his way of thinking, his world view, would have been welcome.

I thought that in the era of fake news we were all agreed that the facts must matter again. So, what has happened here?

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia (Critics’ Voices) and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)

Cold War

Rated M, 1 hr 28 mins

Review by © Jane Freebury

4.5 Stars

This story of the longing and desire of lovers who could no more live together than they could live apart is dedicated to the filmmaker’s parents. While it’s not about his mother and father per se, writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski explores a tempestuous love affair like theirs from the perspective of his own late middle age.

The result is sublimely and coolly elegant. Shot in rich black-and-white on the boxy 4:3 Academy ratio, it looks the way home movies and still image photography looked at the time. And it is irresistible, a 1950s romance set to sultry jazz music and upstart rock n’ roll.

A relaxed and urbane Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is touring the Polish countryside auditioning singers to join a troupe that will perform folk music blended with messaging to help build the new Polish communist state, when a sultry young blonde singer catches his eye. There is a certain something about young Zula (Joanna Kulig), the quality of her voice or her vivacity combined with the whiff of danger of someone who has spent time in prison. It makes Wiktor champion her talents, and fall in love.

The question is, however, were they ever meant to be. Is it personal whim or is it political circumstance that drives them apart, again and again?

During the time that Zula and Wiktor are trying to get it together, the communist machinery is setting up in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe, culminating in the wall in Berlin. Hardly circumstances favourable for this Polish couple, but when a door to freedom in the West opens, Zula rejects the opportunity.

Her resistance, which could be explained as youthful contrariness, seems inexplicable, but then Pawlikowski is less interested in providing answers than he is in creating a tribute to a love affair, and allowing the gaps in understanding to remain. Be prepared for some ellipses where the narrative seems to drop out of sight.

It is poignant to read that Pawlikowski’s parents died long ago, before Cold War hostilities between East and West were declared over in 1991.

In a way, this film is asking an age-old question: where do I come from? Parents were people before they became mothers and fathers, so what kind of people were they? They fell in love, they had aspirations and their union prevailed or it didn’t. Couples like Zula and Wiktor had geopolitical forces to deal with, in addition to each other.

Five years ago, Pawlikowski made a film, also in black and white, also stark and beautiful, about a young woman raised an orphan and on the point of taking her vows as a Catholic nun, who discovers that she is Jewish. This film, Ida, was also a memorable screen experience reflecting on Polish history post World War II.

The similarities probably end there, except that they each demonstrate the filmmaker’s flair for making black-and-white a complete cinema experience at a time the screen is dominated by bombastic blockbuster.

A letter to love in fractious times, Cold War makes no concessions to modern tastes for pace and colour and percussive editing, but is way powerful nonetheless. Yo yo yo.

 

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

The Children Act

M, 105 mins

Palace Electric New Acton

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 stars

A good story about a moral dilemma is hard to beat. The English novelist Ian McEwan has a steady supply of them with characters caught between a rock and a hard place, faced with moral choices at once as intractable as they are desirable.

If humour is wanting – his novel Solar was perhaps an exception – you could not complain about McEwan’s lack of complexity as he challenges his characters with far more than they bargained for. Many literary awards testify to the compelling achievements of this Booker Prize winning author and influential thinker.

He’s a novelist but has on occasion also written just for the screen. The Ploughman’s Lunch in 1983 was based on his screenplay but now he tends to write screenplays based on his own books like Atonement and On Chesil Beach.

These recent films have taught us what we can expect of McEwan – a forensic dissection of human relationships. The film of his book The Children Act is no exception.

Directed with nuance and grace by Richard Eyre, The Children Act repays the viewer with its complexity and a stupendous performance by Emma Thompson, as high court justice Fiona Maye. And Stanley Tucci in excellent form too as her husband Jack, a classics professor.

 A case comes before her involving a young man not quite 18 whose Jehovah Witness family is refusing to allow him a blood transfusion because it’s contrary to their beliefs.The hospital where the boy is languishing with leukemia is suing the parents for the right to pursue treatment – transfusion followed by drug therapy – and an 11th hour decision is required.

Over and above his parents’ wishes, the boy’s life is already protected by the Children Act, but Maye makes an impromptu visit to the boy in hospital. What does he want?

It turns out Adam (Fionn Whitehead),  haggard and handsome, has the sensibilities of a romantic poet. He responds fulsomely to Fiona when she reveals her own interest in poetry and that she is a musician too. It seems as though he represents the passion that is missing from the well-ordered, work-oriented life that she leads as she shuttles between a Gray’s Inn apartment, her rooms and the court. Nor do she and Jack have children.

What’s more, Jack has just left, declaring he’s going to have an affair. It looks like Fiona has taken her demonstrative, sensitive husband for granted, but she changes the locks all the same.

As milady the judge becomes increasingly isolated, Adam becomes more and more obsessive, not entirely unlike the Rhys Ifans’ stalker in Enduring Love, also based on a McEwan book.

That’s one way of looking at it. I found myself wondering where social services were when we needed them. But that, of course, would have been prosaic and not have allowed the dramatic potential of this unusual situation to evolve.

Trust McEwan to throw another curved ball at us.

 

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)

Widows

 MA 15+, 129 mins

Capitol Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A heist movie has to be fun. It needs to be, to join company with so many brilliant examples from Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, to the Pink Panther movies, to The Italian Job, original and remake, and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.

What better fun then than watching a group of women, partners in crime, bent on turning the tables?

Hang on a minute. As you scroll down the ‘best of’ lists for the genre, you find that the heist has been the province of men, decorated by a glamorous woman or two. Films about women getting away with the equivalent of Britain’s great train robbery are few and far between.

It won’t be surprising if people leave Widows wondering why the film doesn’t match their sense of anticipation – or the hype of the trailer. No, Ocean’s Eight didn’t do it for us, but Widows doesn’t gel despite promising ingredients either. The new film from director Steve McQueen doesn’t live up to its promise.

It’s disconcerting, when everything necessary for success is there. An Oscar-winning director, a black British man and a visual artist whose track record includes films like 12 Years A Slave and Hunger. McQueen had the Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn write his screenplay too, and this was developed from a miniseries that was a hit on British television in the 1980s.

Widows opens on scenes of marital bliss, the mature kind. Liam Neeson’s Harry Rawlings is just about to leave for work – that is, he is about to commit a robbery – and dallies with his lovely wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) in moments soon cross-cut with blistering scenes of a violent heist gone wrong. All perpetrators, including Harry, are killed, and the peace in the neutrality of early morning in their luxury apartment erased.

The death of a partner is one thing. Veronica is soon under threat herself, unless she repays the $2 million that her husband apparently owed to a local crime boss, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), who needs it to—wait for it—enter local politics. This is Chicago.

Jamal’s threatening visit, when he handles Veronica’s little white dog, is almost as hard to watch as later scenes of torture. There are some moments of violence in Widows that don’t hold back, with Jamal’s brother and enforcer, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), in on the act too.

Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki

To repay this debt, Veronica recruits the three other women also widowed by the botched robbery, for a new heist she plans based on notes that Harry left behind. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are widows like her, and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a beautician who is enlisted as their driver. Significantly, the fourth widow, does not elect to take part.

Debicki’s character Alice steals the show. The few seconds spent on a conversation between her and her Polish mother – Jacki Weaver here – were worth so much more.

Far too little time is spent on the women as characters and group. There was so much to capitalise on here, but Widows has too little faith in the dynamic value of their personalities and relationships. That little smile shared at the end is intriguing, it may even signal a sequel, but it also suggests there was more to play with here.

Far and away, it was the concept that grabbed us. The very idea of a band of women who join forces for a heist should have been a winner, especially in this #MeToo moment.

The payback moment arrives for Veronica when discovers howshe was fundamentally betrayed by Harry, playing into issues of gender and racerelations. However, with Widows, McQueen hasn’t yet found a way to combine his social activism with the thrillsof the cheeky, brazen plan that we hopped on board for.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7, ArtsCafe