McQueen’s ‘Widows’ so consistently funny that flaws hardly matter

Toronto film festival: British filmmaker honours series while imprinting his own visual stamp

Steve McQueen’s indecently entertaining Widows: The film is so beautifully made, so energetically acted and – a new one for McQueen – so consistently funny that its flaws hardly matter. Photograph: Tiff

Steve McQueen’s indecently entertaining Widows: The film is so beautifully made, so energetically acted and – a new one for McQueen – so consistently funny that its flaws hardly matter. Photograph: Tiff

 

It is interesting to note that barely a single US review of Steve McQueen’s indecently entertaining Widows has mentioned Lynda La Plante. For older Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) attendees from the other side of the Atlantic, La Plante’s source TV series was a defining cultural event of the 1980s (all big hair and rough-hewn capitalism).

Taking another unexpected leap after Shame and 12 Years a Slave, the British filmmaker honours the series while imprinting his own visual stamp on this hectic Chicagoan transfer. There are pensive cinematic flourishes that could only be McQueen. The plot groans with enough secondary characters to people a month of soap operas. Crime dramas are rarely so classy these days.

Scripted by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, the picture pitches Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlins, widow (if you will) of recently slain hoodlum Henry Rawlins (Liam Neeson in flashback). Henry’s last job involved the lifting of several million dollars from African-American gang-lord Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). The money got burned up in the shootout that killed Rawlins, and Jamal, who is trying to break into politics, wants every cent of it reimbursed. Veronica seeks out the other widows from the heist and plans another audacious robbery.

There have been few better films that have made quite this little sense. None of the gang has hitherto had any experience in crime. The script swells with subplots that don’t have the space to stretch out. It’s great to see Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall caning it as two generations of corrupt Irish-American politician, but one yearns to see and hear a bit more of them.

The film is so beautifully made, so energetically acted and – a new one for McQueen – so consistently funny that these flaws hardly matter. Surprisingly in a cast that includes all the above plus Carrie Coon, Michelle Rodriguez and Daniel Kaluuya, the Most Valuable Player may very well be the rising Elizabeth Debicki. She begins as a bit of a dope and then gains more bad-ass points as the plot gathers steam.

There are serious things going on here. Duvall is a kind of Trump stand-in (I’ve seen half a dozen of those at Tiff 2018). The unbeatable Davis gets to fashion a fully fleshed-out human being from her grim-faced avenger. There is a brief sequence that goes straight to the concerns of Black Lives Matter. But it’s the gags, the hopped-up violence and the slick humour that stick in the brain. In a better world, Widows would be a box-office behemoth.

Irish director’s Float like a Butterfly packs a punch

It’s been eight years since Carmel Winters’s excellent Snap scored raves with Irish critics. Now she returns with Float like a Butterfly, a robust, fluid drama concerning a Traveller who, inspired by Mohammad Ali, trains herself into a state of pugilistic excellence. The hugeness of Katie Taylor’s influence here may have been slightly lost on the Toronto audience, but few can fail to be won over by Hazel Doupe’s layered performance as the charismatic Frances.

Float like a Butterfly is a robust, fluid drama concerning a Traveller who, inspired by Mohammad Ali, trains herself into a state of pugilistic excellence. Few can fail to be won over by Hazel Doupe’s layered performance as the charismatic Frances. Photograph: Tiff
Float like a Butterfly is a robust, fluid drama concerning a Traveller who, inspired by Mohammad Ali, trains herself into a state of pugilistic excellence. Few can fail to be won over by Hazel Doupe’s layered performance as the charismatic Frances. Photograph: Tiff

Floats like a Butterfly is a singular film. Winters’s own script prods at gender dynamics and makes a case for the centrality of women within those communities. But the film is also at home to a sentimental romanticism that we rarely see in contemporary depictions of the Traveller community.

We begin with a scene that sets a feud in place. Frances’s mother is killed and her father Michael (the excellent Dara Devaney from Klondike) is arrested following a run-in with the guards. Some years later, he returns and brings his daughter on a road trip that takes in matchmaking, an amusing meeting with fairground hawkers and a uncomfortable reunion with his settled brother. Frances is constantly at odds with the often-drunk Michael, but there is a connection that can never be fully severed.

Winters looks to have researched her subject in depth. These Travellers are still huddled into the traditional horse-drawn caravans. They sing the old songs. They douse for horse ailments. The story does meander a little and the acting is inconsistent, but this is an impressively passionate recreation of a now-distant era. Above all it is a triumph for Doupe, who scraps and bawls and triumphs like a star from the golden age.

Winters had more to celebrate than a successful world premiere. She was in the auditorium to tell us that, just a few days earlier, she got married. That’s some week.

A Star is Born: Lady Gaga is a delight

The fourth version of A Star is Born – the fifth according to some pernickety film historians – has its North American premiere at Tiff. As you won’t need to be told, Bradley Cooper is now the aging drunk and Lady Gaga is the talented ingénue who gets taken under his wing. Making his directorial debut, Cooper has taken the brave decision of revisiting the milieu of the least-admired version: the Barbra Streisand vanity project with Kris Kristofferson. The director is the boozy singer-songwriter. Her ladyship – appearing in no-makeup makeup – is an unknown coming up on the rails.

The fourth version of A Star is Born – the fifth according to some pernickety film historians – has its North American premiere at Tiff. As you won’t need to be told, Bradley Cooper is now the aging drunk and Lady Gaga is the talented ingénue who gets taken under his wing. Photograph: Tiff
The fourth version of A Star is Born – the fifth according to some pernickety film historians – has its North American premiere at Tiff. As you won’t need to be told, Bradley Cooper is now the aging drunk and Lady Gaga is the talented ingénue who gets taken under his wing. Photograph: Tiff

This turns out to be a practical essay in the art of heart-tugging, popular filmmaking. Every cog whirs smoothly. Every gear changes with no hitch. The motor hums like a well-maintained vintage Bugatti. Gaga is an absolute delight. Cooper is entirely swallowed up by his character. Not for the first time, your correspondent had to be helped from the cinema in a state of lachrymose shock. It’s not a perfect film, but I can’t think of a single thing that’s wrong with it. 

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