Film reviews: Widows | Outlaw King | They Shall Not Grow Old | Overlord | Wildlife

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Steve McQueen’s update of heist thriller Widows upends the conventions of the genre, while Peter Jackson commemorates the sacrifice of the First World War with an extraordinary piece of archival filmmaking. By Alistair Harkness

Widows (15) ****

Outlaw King (18) ***

They Shall Not Grow Old (15) ****

Overlord (18) **

Wildlife (15) ***

With his latest film Widows, Turner-prize wining artist turned Oscar-lauded filmmaker Steve McQueen subverts what could quaintly be thought of as the mainstream, if the mainstream were still dominated by grown-up thrillers instead of teen-friendly franchises. A tense, character-driven heist thriller very much in the mould of Heat, the film – an adaptation of a London-set Lynda La Plante miniseries from the 1980s, but with the action transposed to present day Chicago – smartly upends the macho conventions of the genre by casting Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki as the wives of a crew of career criminals (led by Liam Neeson) who decide to pull off a daring robbery after their husbands’ deaths on a job gone spectacularly wrong leave them on the hook for their respective debts. McQueen sets the tone with a blistering opening sequence and plays around with genre tropes to give his starry ensemble – which includes Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Daniel Kaluuya – plenty of meaty character work to play with. But Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s tightly plotted script and Davis’s multi-layered performance allows him to weave in trenchant political commentary about race, gender and power without losing control of the labyrinthine story. The end result is entertaining as hell: a defiantly feminist piece of art that questions why the default setting for commercial movie-making still favours male-led stories.

Getting a limited release in cinemas to coincide with its launch on Netflix this weekend, Outlaw King should benefit from being viewed on the big screen, where the full scale of David Mackenzie’s muddy, bloody action film about Robert the Bruce can be appreciated. Not that it necessarily embraces all the epic movie tropes beloved of these types of emotive historical action movies though. It may have glorious camera work, revenge-filled plot twists, lots of speechifying and an English villain with a hipster bowl cut, but Mackenzie seems very conscious of the way these kinds of stories can be turned into simplistic myths. Damping down the potential jingoism of Robert’s ascent to the throne and his journey towards reclaiming Scotland from the occupying forces of Edward I, he makes Robert’s violent political awakening the driving force of the film, with Chris Pine playing him with the same kind of gruff, almost passive machismo that worked so well for him in Mackenzie’s previous film, Hell or High Water. Mackenzie and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) do go all out to depict the battle sequences in visceral and forensic detail, but the moments that linger longest are the smaller ones, where cruelty erupts on screen so quickly you almost don’t register how horrifying it is. In this sense Outlaw King feels like the antithesis of Braveheart – something symbolised by William Wallace’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the form of a severed limb.

Also getting a limited cinematic release ahead of its BBC2 debut on Remembrance Day is Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, an extraordinary piece of archival filmmaking in which he brings the full force of his visual effects expertise to bear on reams of First World War footage held by the Imperial War Museum. Using the voices of veterans, diary entries and sound recordings, Jackson has colourised the footage (and for the cinematic release retro-fitted it with 3D) to give almost a time-traveller’s-eye-view of life on the frontline. Holding back the colour footage until the story reaches the trenches, the Wizard of Oz-like transition is surreal, but the myth-challenging, unsentimental insight it provides into what these men went through is gripping and valuable in the extreme.

Produced by JJ Abrams, written by Billy Ray and directed by up-and-coming Australian filmmaker Julius Avery, Overlord is a futile exercise in turd-polishing: a zombie-Nazi splatter-flick that’s had more millions thrown at it than its schlocky premise either requires or benefits from. That premise revolves around a group of American GIs parachuted into German-occupied France to knock out a communications tower on the eve of the D-Day landings. What they find instead is a sort of village of the damned in which Nazi doctors have been experimenting on locals to create an immortal army capable of defending Hitler’s proposed 1,000-year Reich. There’s nothing new in any of this of course. From Shock Waves and Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Keep and Hellboy, Nazi occultism has been fair game for some pretty great and some pretty terrible movies. The problem here isn’t so much one of taste (or tastelessness), then, as of general incompetence: when it comes to exploiting its Frankensteined plot to create chills or thrills it falls flat, preferring to serve up an onslaught of seen-it-all-before CGI gore, cliché-ridden characters and the sort of self-consciously grizzled B-movie dialogue that might have sounded good coming from Kurt Russell’s mouth but sounds laughably lame coming from his son Wyatt Russell, cast here as a lushly coiffed explosives expert with a take-no-prisoners-approach to his job. Jovan Adepo and Iain De Caestecker co-star.

Based on a novel by Richard Ford, Wildlife marks an accomplished directorial debut for actor Paul Dano who – along with writing partner Zoe Kazan – transforms Ford’s 1960s-set tale of a fracturing family into a fantastic showcase for Carey Mulligan. As the frustrated wife of an underachieving and emotionally inarticulate husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), Mulligan makes the film her own, especially as it zeroes in on her relationship with her teenage son (Ed Oxenbould) and the way she dares him to see his parents for the flawed, still young, still vital human beings that they are.