Two of this fall’s guttiest (and best) movies are led exclusively by women: Yorgos Lanthimos’ royal send-up The Favourite and Steve McQueen’s slow-burn heist thriller Widows. Queens are a dime a dozen on screen, but they seldom get to be this wild and sexual; and I can’t think of a comparable movie to McQueen’s four women (including three women of color) who finish the job their men couldn’t.
After the dark humor of The Lobster (I liked it) and the even darker The Killing of a Sacred Deer (I hated it!), Lanthimos gives us a more approachable, though still delightfully batty, comedy: a ribald take on Queen Anne’s wilting ability to lead England while her closest confidant and a newcomer to the palace spar for her affections. It’s a movie where historical fact is pretty useless. So is the queen; she’s ceremonial at this point, fighting against her ailing health and eager to go along with the political bidding of Rachel Weisz, her right-hand woman (and occasional sexual partner). When Emma Stone, a commoner from a formerly aristocratic family, arrives at the palace to work, she hastily charms her way into the queen’s inner sanctum and schemes to take Weisz’s place by the queen’s side (and in her bed).
It’s delicious fun, with three first-rate actresses going toe to toe. I give the edge to Weisz, who carries herself with malevolent calm, like an eighteenth-century Mrs. Danvers. Her withering put-downs can be positively soul-crushing, yet we feel badly for her as her hold on power becomes more tenuous. Her steely resolve masks a wounded woman underneath. Honestly, all three women are great. Emma Stone gets to shed her girl-next-door image and be a little nasty. Colman, even with her sharp comedic instincts, makes Anne a very tragic and lonely woman, condemned to a near-solitary existence and the betrayal of her own body. She can’t ever be sure if her favorites’ attention is really love or just hunger for power.
The Favourite is a frivolous thing, a spirited absurdity that breaks away from everything we typically see in queen movies. Lanthimos can be Too Much–how many fishbowl camera shots does one movie need? But he’s also created something wonderful, a story focused on the women who, by virtue of men’s complete disregard for their gender, create their own private world of craftiness and carnivorous pleasure.
Viola Davis has never been better than she is in Widows. She stares straight ahead, her eyes barely flinching, like she’s on the verge of breaking down. But she’s resilient; she has a job to finish, a robbery to avenge her husband’s death. Veronica, a widow turned hit-woman, is like many of Davis’s characters, who hide their pain under a tough-as-nails outer shell. She’s always a magnetic presence, but here–as the reluctant leader of three women completing the robbery their husbands couldn’t–she really does surprise, keeping her usual intensity at a low simmer. It’s Davis’s first real opportunity to be a movie star, and she seizes it.
McQueen wanted Widows to be more mainstream than his previous movies. Unfortunately, Widows is doing poorly at the box office. If you’re expecting a conventional thriller, this isn’t it. I probably worried for a good 30 or 45 minutes about the movie’s very deliberate pacing. I’ve been weighing whether the tempo is too slow or just right; McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s script doesn’t hand-hold, but as the plot picks up, I was pleased that each character got enough space to breathe. Find me another action ensemble movie where the eight main actors all get this level of attention and detailed character work. This is no Ocean’s 8, but a serious examination of four women using their race and their femininity to reclaim space in a community where they are largely invisible.
McQueen takes his time to tell a story. His camera sees a lot more than his characters do, including an astonishing shot following Chicago alderman candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) as his car drives through the South Side, passing richer and poorer streets, an uneven distribution of wealth enclosed in just a few blocks. In Widows’ wonderful slate of supporting actors, Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya were the two that grabbed me most: Debicki for her affecting, sadly funny Alice, who becomes an escort to pay the bills after her husband is killed; and Kaluuya, who is absolutely terrifying.
For a heist movie, the script isn’t as savvy at thinking through the details of the actual robbery. And the ending is too tidy. It’s not the robbery that’s as gripping as watching everyone, the widows, the politicians, and the crime bosses, fight for their lives. Every action comes from desperation. I’m putting Widows at the top of my rewatch list for the year. There’s so much packed into this movie, I feel like pouring a glass or two of red wine and letting these women’s do-or-die determination wash over me again.