Dir: Steve McQueen; Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, Daniel Kaluuya. Cert 15, 129 mins

It came as a surprise to learn that Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning British director of harrowing dramas like 12 Years a Slave, Shame and Hunger, was adapting a Lydia La Plante crime novel for the screen. You don’t expect McQueen to take on genre fare like this. He makes an admirable job of the task, even if Widows, which opened the London Film Festival, ultimately seems lightweight by comparison with his other movies.

McQueen and his co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame) have relocated La Plante’s story from Eighties Britain to contemporary Chicago. It’s here that the grieving wives of a gang of hardened criminals who’ve just been shot to death in a heist gone wrong have to pick up the pieces of their lives. 

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Chicago being Chicago, crime, corruption and political skullduggery are an intrinsic part of everyday life. The women had little idea what their husbands were up to in the Windy City. None of the men, whether politicians, priests, gangsters or cops, come out of the story well. We wouldn’t expect otherwise. The film offers us many different versions of masculinity, almost all of them odious. The husbands are philanderers, wife-beaters and inveterate sexists. The women may turn to crime as a matter of necessity but it’s also their own form of rebellion. As they put it, they’re “done being treated like shit”.

McQueen deals with bereavement, race, gender and class at the same time as telling a rip-roaring story about a group of widows who need to get hold of a lot of money very quickly.

Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) has inherited one very valuable item from her gangster husband, Harry (Liam Neeson). She has his notebook. In it, he has logged long-hand every bribe and transaction as well as the plans for a future heist. Harry was a very meticulous man. He was also intimately involved in the affairs of the corrupt local alderman, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), now standing for re-election against the equally venal black crime boss, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).

Veronica and two other widows, Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), have debts to pay – and staging their own heist may be their only way out of trouble.

The settings and characters here are familiar from countless other heist dramas. McQueen, though, has a sly way both of subverting and reinventing genre conventions. He will introduce a strain of morbid humour when we least expect it or will film key set-pieces from surprising angles. For example, we will see Jack Mulligan speaking in platitudes to potential black female voters one moment and we will then hear him swearing violently in his car. Farrell plays Mulligan with just the right measure of unctuous and casual cynicism. Even better is Robert Duvall as his father, the ancient patriarch of the family that has controlled Chicago’s local politics for decades. In the presence of women like Veronica, he is kind and solicitous but, in private, he is a virulent, foul-mouthed racist.

At the most solemn moments, McQueen will always leaven matters by focusing on Veronica’s beloved pet dog, a white terrier with an uncanny ability to upstage the humans around it.

In its lesser moments, Widows risks turning into a more gritty version of an escapist romp like Ocean’s 8. The plot relies heavily on coincidence and leaves too many loose ends. Some of the girl power-style lines the characters utter (“No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off”) ring hollow. Details about secret codes for opening safes or hidden building plans are strictly routine – the kind of mechanical plotting you would find in any B-movie thriller.

Rebels with a cause (20th Century Fox)

What lifts Widows are the women. Viola Davis gives an excellent and surprisingly complex performance as Veronica. Early on, she plays her as a haunted and grieving wife, looking at the empty side of the bed where her husband used to lie. However, Veronica emerges as a resilient and very pragmatic figure, capable of showing the same ruthlessness as any of the hoodlums in her husband’s gang. Debicki is similarly impressive as the pampered but abused wife who discovers a new sense of independence once she has a Glock in her hands. Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo (as the hairdresser turned getaway driver) are gangsters with a difference, plotting their criminal lives around babysitting shifts and their children’s bed times.

Widows is certainly the least gruelling of McQueen’s four features. For once, he is not taking us into very dark places. The film is intended as an entertainment, an old-fashioned heist thriller, but even in its most escapist moments, it never loses sight of the bigger issues underlying its heroines’ plight.

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Widows is released in UK cinemas on 6 November

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