Fighting Fire with Fire: How Wildlife and Widows are Reclaiming the Riches of a Woman Scorned

With the release of Widows, a female-fronted heist thriller from visual artist-turned-director Steve McQueen, and Wildlife, a portrait of suburban grief revealing the disquiet of a restless mother and wife, there’s a word which lights up discussions with a flashing red glare: “timely”.

Buzzwords are losing momentum in favour of a richer, messier kind of woman to care about.

It’s an urgent moment to be telling stories about women, for women, that audiences can relate to and feel inspired by. These stories come into a world that has been taught about the infamous Strong Female Character - an easy name given to a woman who takes up more room on screen than the average sidekicks and love interests, by offering inspirational but still two-dimensional qualities of heroism. The Strong Female Character stands up for herself and speaks as loud as she fights. She’s cool, she’s sexy and brave - she’s not like your average weak woman.

Carey Mulligan in  Wildlife  (2018)

Carey Mulligan in Wildlife (2018)

The women in Widows certainly won’t be flattened into the cutout of a docile sidekick, and Wildlife’s Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) has been christened “unlikeable” in a vote of confidence describing her conflicted psyche. In their contradictions and vital shortcomings, the characters in both films (brilliantly directed, and done so by men) reclaim what it means to be strong and how much it matters to be weak - and they’re not sorry about it in the slightest.

Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould and Jake Gyllenhaal in  Wildlife  (2018)

Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould and Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildlife (2018)

In Wildlife, Jeanette comes into focus when her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) reckons with his pride and decides to fend for himself. She’s left with their 14-year-old son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), and a tetchy snap in her step. Carey Mulligan calculates every flinch as evidence of Jeanette’s layers, both resentful and vulnerable. At once recovering her youth and chasing after the satisfaction of her adult years, she’s a woman who’s spent her life taking care of her boys without allowing herself anything that only belongs to her.

Through Joe’s eyes, a relationship unravels and the picture of his perfect family fades as the negative develops. When Jerry’s away, Jeanette does play; with her style composed of lime green dresses and coiffed chocolate-coloured curls, with her son and all of his questions about who she used to be, and with the stranger who sells shiny cars that she welcomes into her home.

Carey Mulligan in  Wildlife  (2018)

Carey Mulligan in Wildlife (2018)

At this point, Wildlife could be seen as the blaming of a woman who messes everything up, because she is messed up - but the precision with which her identity is designed enables an understanding of someone who isn’t defined by who she kisses or how she cries. Jeanette Brinson is figuring out her life in a way that no one, not even herself, ever thought could matter. Whether an audience likes her is the least of all concerns.

Viola Davis and Colin Farrell in  Widows  (2018)

Viola Davis and Colin Farrell in Widows (2018)

Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), the leading woman in Widows, has no choice but to reinvent the role she’s been given when the love of her life is taken away, leaving nothing but an explosive and expensive mess to clean up. The premise forces the world to crash in on this woman who, discounting her mourning, still has to assemble a rescue-cum-hit team. The film twists expectations of courage and obscures the depth of loyalty with meteoric shock, as the wives who have been left behind finally get to fill their own shoes as they take back control. Veronica operates with a stoney determination which only belies the pain of betrayal, so strong it’s become numb.

Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in  Widows  (2018)

Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows (2018)

Widows’ crashing realisations prove that no one can be trusted, but if you were to look at one of the women now without a husband, you’d find the qualities of a hero who, usually male, would be earning colossal acclaim in other heist movies; a brave, charismatic, unforgiving fighter who does what they want and gets respect for it. They swear, they sin and they cheat - but it’s accepted because they have a mission to fulfil. In Widows, the first mission belonged to the men, but the bigger game is for Veronica and her team to play.

Viola Davis and Brian Tyree Henry in  Widows  (2018)

Viola Davis and Brian Tyree Henry in Widows (2018)

Selfishness drives the reinvention of the roles these women present. Wildlife and Widows are signalling a shift in what we want to watch - not because we like it, but because we need it. By twisting the circumstances that have created a limited understanding of what a role model should be, buzzwords are losing momentum in favour of a richer, messier kind of woman to care about. I admire Jeanette and Veronica not because I’m dreaming of being like them one day. I’m protective of them, because the damage finally shown on a big screen is one we’ve been seeing for years, just staring back in the mirror.

[Words by Ella Kemp]

Hear more from Ella on the Curzon Podcast, discussing Widows and Wildlife with the rest of the podcast team.

Wildlife is available on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 11 March.