I had a difficult time connecting with Barry Jenkins' last film, "Moonlight," and initially I thought I was in for another struggle with his adaptation of "If Beale Street Could Talk." However, I found the material far more accessible, and I was better able to appreciate what Jenkins was able to do with it. The story is a familiar one, even if the particulars are of a very specific milieu. Girl and boy are in love, but fate separates them. The girl, Tish (KiKi Layne) is expecting a baby, but the boy, Fonny (Stephan James) has been falsely accused of rape and stews in jail. Her family is sympathetic, but his is not. The film watches the situation develop, while flashing back to earlier events in Tish and Fonny's lives and courtship.
Like "Moonlight," this is a love story, and it's the way that the film gets us so invested in the relationship that I found remarkable. The mood and atmosphere here are everything, the smoke curling from Fonny's cigarette as he regards a new woodworking project, the nocturnal intimacy of Tish and Fonny's first night together, and the warm kinship of Tish's family celebrating her announcement. Jenkins is so adept at getting us inside the characters' heads, putting us in these private spaces - sometimes uncomfortably close. When Tish's mother Sharon (Regina King) hits a setback, her face fills the screen, her desolation inescapable. And then there's the chilling encounter with a white police officer played by Ed Skrein, where the discordant music and the queasy cinematography make him seem positively demonic from Tish's frightened perspective.
Again, however, there were places where I found myself struggling with slower pacing or incidental moments that didn't work for me the way they were intended. I still think there are a few cultural and stylistic barriers that kept me from enjoying this as much as I wanted to - and this time, I really wanted to. Romantic mood pieces may just not hold my interest as much as more plotty pieces of media, no matter how exquisitely executed. And "If Beale Street Could Talk" is exquisite filmmaking through and through.
Now on to "Widows," which is admittedly more my speed. Steve McQueen has assembled a sensational cast for a heist movie of rare ambition. We don't just learn about the lives and motives of each of the women involved in pulling off the big job, but we learn a great deal about the social circumstances in which they operate. Set in Chicago, against the backdrop of a hotly contested election, "Widows" initially sets up a juicy genre premise. A robbery, led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), goes wrong and all four of the men involved are killed. The victim, a local crime boss named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), goes after Harry's widow Veronica (Viola Davis) for the missing money. So she plots with the widows of the other robbers, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), to pull off a heist of their own.
There are a lot of twists and turns in the story, but McQueen's primary interest is with character and setting. We spend a lot of time with Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), one of the candidates in the election, whose involvement with the heist initially appears to be minimal. However, through him we learn the ins and outs of South Side Chicago, its politics and its tensions. Veronica is constantly on the move, traveling all over the city for meetings with people in high and low places. She's often elegantly dressed with her dog in tow, a figure of fortitude and power even though she's frequently underestimated. In her quieter moments, we watch her grieve for Harry as a woman still very much in love. Alice, and to a lesser extent Linda and her friend Belle (Cynthia Erivo), are very well fleshed out, living their own lives and dealing with their own sets of problems and concerns.
I'd heard some complaints that all of this extra work got in the way of the actual mechanics of the heist film, but I didn't find this to be the case. There's plenty of action and confrontation, and room for all the actresses to shine, Davis in particular. I will caution that it takes more time and patience to get there than your average heist film. However, along the way you get to meet people like Jamal's brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), an enforcer with a sadistic streak, and Bash (Garrett Dillahunt), Veronica's loyal chauffeur. You get to see the sights and enjoy the view a little more, before the bullets start to fly.