Widows

Harriet

25/11/19

Anyone who has witnessed the superb double-punch that was Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows will surely have the same conviction as me: that Cynthia Erivo is destined to be a major player in the cinema. So her presence in the lead role of Harriet feels suspiciously like an affirmation. This is a part she was born to play and it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to depict this spirited, fearless woman. Filmmakers have been playing with the idea of a Tubman biopic for something like twenty-five years now, back when producers actually considered offering the role to Julia Roberts! Wow. But here, finally, is the film we’ve been waiting for and, in terms of a performance, Erivo knocks it right out of the park. 

We first encounter Harriet Tubman in 1846, when she’s Araminta Ross, a slave ‘belonging’ to the Brodess family in Maryland, and dreading the prospect of being sold further south, as her two sisters were when she was a child. She’s also prone to having religious visions, a legacy of a fractured skull delivered by her ruthless owner, Edward. Harriet is married to John Tubman (Zackery Momoh), a so-called free man, and has acquired legal papers to prove she too should be free. But Edward is adamant that he will never give up such a valuable piece of property. When he dies, his equally odious son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), needs to pay off his father’s gambling debts and decides that he will sell Harriet. She takes the only option she feels is left to her and runs away, leaving John behind for fear of getting him involved in her illegal act.

Through sheer grit and determination, she makes the one-hundred-mile trip to Philadelphia unharmed, and is introduced to William Still (Leslie Odom Jnr), a major player in the Underground Railroad, a secret organisation dedicated to bringing slaves from the Southern states to freedom in the North. Harriet takes her new ‘free’ name and tells William she wants to go back to Maryland to rescue her husband and the other members of her family, but he doubts that a lone woman could ever achieve such a task. Undaunted, she heads back anyway, risking her own capture to bring her loved ones to freedom. Once there, she finds that John, believing her dead, has married and is due to be a father. But the rest of her family still need guiding to safety. This achieved, Harriet extends her help to strangers. And when changing laws mean that she has to take her ‘passengers’ as far north as Canada, she doesn’t hesitate to do so…

Harriet is a film that eloquently communicates the true horrors of slavery. Whip marks on people’s bodies bear silent testimony to the horrors of the antebellum South, and the story doesn’t hold back on shaming the people who perpetuated slavery and who were even willing to go to war in order to preserve it. Gideon Brodress is depicted as a truly loathesome example of humanity and, sadly, the corridors of power are populated by others just like him. 

Tubman, by the way, is one of the few women who served as a soldier during the American Civil War, leading a black regiment to rescue 750 captive slaves at Combahee River. It would be hard to imagine a more worthy recipient of our respect and yet, when it was recently suggested that her image should replace that of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, a certain Donald Trump had the change ‘postponed’ until 2026. Which demonstrates that we may not have come as far as we might like to think.

Till then, Kasi Lemon’s moving and important film must suffice as Harriet Tubman’s memorial. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t getting the kind of massive rollout that more commercial movies are receiving, but I urge you to see it, if only for Erivo’s dazzling performance in the title role.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney