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.

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 WidowsMcQueen 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