When I first saw the trailers for Widows earlier this year, I had two main thoughts, the first one was predictably enough, how cool a movie it looked, quickly followed by the growing feeling that I’ve seen this movie before. Wasn’t that the plot of one of those Lynda La Plante dramas in the 90s? (Okay, I admit it; I also thought two female-led heist movies in one year? Hollywood you are spoiling me! I do love a heist.) Turns out it was actually from the 80s but they must have re-run it when I was a teenager in the late 90s because I was definitely too young to have watched it the first time round. But the important bit, was that yes, it was the same story – enough of the same story that La Plante gets a story credit – which made it an interesting choice as the follow-up film for Steve McQueen to have made after the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave. Yet in another way it’s a film that fits perfectly into McQueen’s filmography, which has always had a focus on bodies as political and interaction between politics and identity.
For all that Widows is set in Chicago, there’s something fundamentally British about the film and it’s preoccupation with class over race. I’m not sure you could see this film and think the director was from the US. Perhaps it’s better to say that this is a film about the immigrant experience of America. It’s a film of outsiders looking in; that contrasts the story of the American Dream with the generations long struggle of immigrants to both belong and become ‘respectable’. (Never more viscerally than in the stand-off between Veronica Rawlins and Jamal Manning early in the film, and all the layers of meaning to his chilling comment of ‘welcome back’.) It also highlights how fragile the realisation of that dream truly is, how easily it can be pulled out from under you, and all the ways your past can be used against you or simply catch up with you.
It’s really interesting to see the younger Mulligan consciously make the choice to offer a truce to his rival Manning in the aftermath of his own father’s bitter rant. An unspoken acknowledgement of Jamal’s earlier argument that the move from crime to politics is both a well-trodden path and one his own fore-bearers made. (Given the amount of Americans I have seen playing ‘Irish’ gangsters with correspondingly terrible accents, it was a strange pleasure to see the two major Irish-American characters played by actually Irish actors who’ve made their careers in Hollywood. I also suspect that there was a little quiet commentary on the fact that there are still a statistically significant percentage of the much-maligned ‘illegal immigrant’ populations in the US are Irish.) It does make you wonder how differently that whole scene might have gone if Jack Manning could have said that out loud in a way that Manning could have heard. That despite all the superficial differences of race and class and respectability, they are fundamentally the same kind of people, men cut from the same cloth.
All of the women involved in the heist are trying to pull themselves upwards – however different their methods – and that is fundamentally what ties them together. One of the eponymous widows, Linda, has a line when she opts into the heist where she says that ‘if this thing goes wrong, I want my kids to know I didn’t just sit there and take it, I did something’. And that attitude seems to apply to all the characters we follow in the film, rich and poor, they all feel trapped by their lives and they all want to fight back against that. Fundamentally that feels like the theme of the film, people kicking back against a world that fundamentally doesn’t care about what they want and will crush them if they stop fighting for a moment.
This is a film with layers, and the more you dig in the more you’ll find; just as surely as the wheels within wheels that the characters keep discovering and revealing, will crush them if they stand still for a moment too long.