It’s been five years since Best Picture winning 12 Years a Slave graced the big screen, and it appears director Steve McQueen is determined to match his previous success. With a cast so star studded it almost sounds too good to be true, Widows, based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Lynda La Plante, follows a group of women brought together when their husbands are killed in a heist gone wrong.

The harsh opening editing flicks between peaceful domesticity and high stakes carnage, before fading to a succession of long, languishing shots in the middle of the film. McQueen’s control is clear: his close ups are held for an almost uncomfortable length, juxtaposing the swirling and smooth movement of the camera for the majority of scenes – solid if uninventive work by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Social and racial tensions threaten to erupt at any second, but never feel overly dramatized or condescending. Historically, McQueen’s unique strength has been his skill at drawing out fantastic performances from a cast. Spearheading this initiative, Viola Davis plays Veronica, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) led the criminals to their disastrous fate. In beautiful flashbacks, Davis and Neeson’s chemistry is moving, building an aura of verisimilitude that is uncommon to this genre but perfectly fitting. In recent years, especially with TV show How to Get Away with Murder, Davis’s performances have had a tendency to step into melodramatic terrority, but it is her reservation and strength here that inspire empathy.

Of course, Davis is not alone. Joining her in the spotlight are the fellow wives of the now deceased team of robbers - two relatively lesser known thespians who prove they deserve a share of the leading actress title. Elizabeth Debicki showed promise in miniseries The Night Manager, but here she builds on that emotional intelligence so brilliantly wielded, dashing preconceptions of her innocence and one dimensionality. And as for Michelle Rodrigues, it becomes so clear just how criminally wasted she has been in the Fast and Furious series.

Banding together, these women must find a way to pay off the debts their husbands left behind, faced on all sides by an incredible cast of threatening figures. Both Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall turn in striking performances as proud father and resentful son, an impressive feat considering the length of each actor’s resume. If anything though, the less experienced cast members are the ones to watch: Brian Tyree Henry’s irascibility as wannabe politician Jamal Manning is both a joy and a terror to behold, and Cynthia Erivo’s quiet determination convinces as one of the film’s more grounded characters – a last minute addition to Veronica’s team. Even with such a fantastic line up, one actor manages to stand out. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Jatemme Manning, brutish brother-fixer to Jamal, steals every scene, boasting the captivation of an actor with far more experience behind him. It is the kind of quiet psychopath role that many have tried before but few have succeeded, and Kaluuya brings the same dead eyed intrigue that worked so well for Get Out, adding a level of threat that is deliberately subtle yet completely chilling. Recalling Jack Palance’s Man in Black from Shane, his relaxed pleasure in committing violent acts is equal parts distressing and absorbing.

It would be impossible to cover every character and plotline, but suffice it to say there is plenty more at play that Veronica’s plight. It is difficult in so few words to convey the epic sense of multilayering and interconnectivity that runs through the script by McQueen and Gillian Flynn. Not since films like Crash and Babel has a screenplay weaved together individual stories so beautifully through a common event or location, and it will come as no shock for this film to feel far less heavy handed in doing so. Bathetic moments hit the right notes, allowing the dramatic ones to land even harder. Unsurprisingly from the writer of Gone Girl, the tension refuses to fade for even a second, and is more than once utterly overpowering – aided in no small part by a quite literally breath-taking score by Hans Zimmer.

In the hands of a different director, or different writers, it isn’t hard to imagine this film as a light-hearted mess of a blockbuster, sacrificing drama and genuine tension in favour of cheap thrills and gaudy twists. As it is, McQueen’s film is masterful, as much a state of the nation commentary as it is a heist film. With more than one career best performance among the cast, and some of the most effective plot dynamism in recent memory, Widows is sure to enthral fans of the original TV series and impress McQueen’s own followers alike. And for those uninitiated in both, here’s a film to unite those fond of both intelligent crime stories and heavy hitting dramas; a film that thoroughly deserves any and all of the awards buzz it will inevitably receive.

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