Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’ is a lesson in how to portray badass women in film

The 12 Years a Slave director's most mainstream offering yet sees a group of widows plan a massive robbery – and their gender means no one suspects a thing. It's the year's best thriller.

The female kick-assery going down in Hollywood at the moment is mostly deeply boring – films made with the reasoning that if you have a woman doing James Bond in heels it counts as feminism. Well it doesn’t.

Now, with a masterclass in how to get it right, here’s director Steve McQueen adapting Lynda La Plante’s 1983 TV drama into the year’s best thriller. Interestingly, McQueen has said he identified with the women on screen when he first saw the original on the telly aged 13 – it’s about a group of women who turn to a life of crime when their husbands get killed in a robbery. No one suspects them because, well, they’re women. As a young black kid McQueen was repeatedly told at school that he wouldn’t amount to much.

McQueen wrote the script with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, whose fingerprints are all over this. With a detail here, a background scene there, the pair create characters – male and female – with fully realised lives you believe in. Transferring the action from London to Chicago, this 21st century Widows is about racism and politics as well as female rage – with a dynamite heist at the end.

Viola Davis is staggeringly good as Veronica, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson in flashbacks) goes up in flames in a van with $2m of nicked cash and three other lags (the response of a cynical cop is worth noting: “I always said he should rot in hell, but Chicago will do”). The stolen cash belongs to a drug dealer, Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry), who comes knocking at Veronica’s door when she is in the slow, stupefied stage of grief. Jamal needs the money back to bankroll his campaign for office in local politics (where the real money is – a subplot straight out of The Wire). Jamal gives Veronica a month to stump up the dosh, or he’ll unleash his psychopathic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya).

None of the women have committed a major crime before… but like a storm gathering they have power

When Veronica finds Harry’s notebook (he was an old-school pen and paper guy) with details of a job he was planning, she recruits the widows of her husband’s dead crook pals to pull it off. There’s Michelle Rodriguez as Linda, flat-broke with two kids after her husband gambled away the profits of her clothes shop. Elizabeth Debicki (who stole the show from Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager) is Alice, a dumb trashy blonde. Or so everyone thinks. A third woman, hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) joins them later. None of the women, Veronica included, have committed a major crime before. They are terrified, but like a storm gathering they have power.

This is the 12 Years a Slave director’s most mainstream offering yet. What makes a McQueen film so distinctive is that he does everything for real. There’s nothing fake or polite about his style – he doesn’t look away however ugly it gets. So, when a female character get smacked in the face here, it looks like she’s been smacked in the face – there’s a split-second of shock as she registers what’s just happened. Grief in Widows is messy. So too is love; the film opens with Davis and Neeson in bed kissing, full-on with tongues and saliva (it’s depressing that in 2018 interracial couples are still so rare on screen that you notice them).

The original Widows was a six-parter (though there was a second season in 1985). My only beef with this film, is that with its novel-like lived-in characters, style, passion and purpose, it couldn’t be longer.

★★★★☆

Widows is in cinemas from November 9