Writers Harry and Jack Williams, best known for the gripping thriller “The Missing,” showcase Kate Beckinsale’s considerable talents in “The Widow,” an intriguing mystery-adventure that ultimately suffers from trying to shoehorn in too many storylines. Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the eight-episode series also contributes to the self-perpetuating canon of white-savior narratives, despite efforts to present the Congolese with far more range and depth than has been seen traditionally on screen.
We meet Georgia Wells (Beckinsale) as a miserable hermit in a remote part of Wales. She’s still mourning the loss of her husband Will Mason (Matthew Le Nevez), who died three years ago in an airplane explosion over the Congo. A glimpse of his telltale orange baseball cap on the news leads her to believe he might still be alive, and thus begins her African adventure in which she plays amateur sleuth and dusts off her rusty Army skills.
Hallmarks of the Williams’ strengths can be seen: the many twists of “The Missing,” the multiple POVs from “Liar,” and unveiling motivations in the reverse-timeline series “Rellik.” There’s a certain satisfaction in watching Georgia track down clues and skirt the law in her quest for the truth about her husband. There’s plenty of surprises and cliffhangers to keep the viewer engaged, even as the multiple narratives become overwhelming. (In particular, a storyline about two blind people in the Netherlands seeking treatment to restore their eyesight is completely unnecessary.)
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“The Widow” also makes frequent use of flashbacks, shuttling back and forth months or years at will. However, it can feel like a shortcut to character development. Rather than allow actions to reflect complexity or conflict, the writers favor flashbacks to a traumatic moments that spoon-feed insight.
Affecting performances keep the series from going off the rails. Beckinsale again proves a compelling leading lady, capable of measured emotion without becoming overly maudlin even while wielding a machine gun and evading bad guys. Charles Dance and Alex Kingston imbue their characters with irascible humanity, and newcomer Shalom Nyandiko gives a beautiful and natural performance as young Adidja, a young Congolese girl forced to join a militia.
Both Adidja and Emmanuel (Jacky Ido) — a man who lost his wife on the same ill-fated flight — are the series’ most sympathetic Congolese characters. They love, they laugh, and are treated to brief, flashback backstories. They’re slightly more sophisticated versions of the magical negro — a black character who awakens and cultivates the better qualities in a white hero — but in the end, they still serve the same purpose.
In an early scene, Emmanuel reflects on colonialism and the country’s instability and corruption. “Sixty years ago, we had trains, roads, steamboats up and down the Congo river, full of white people come to discover a world beyond their own — only to return home with their minds now broader and themselves no different but for their suntan,” he tells Georgia. “We were — what’s that word we’re not allowed to use? Civilized. On the surface, anyway. The truth is that things were probably always rotten, but now, now we don’t lie about it.”
Here, he plants the seed that will bloom into Georgia’s white consciousness. Saving the people of the Congo is not her raison d’être — she still has a husband to find, after all — but through her struggles in Africa, she becomes alive. She’s no longer the pitiful wraith hiding from the world, but a determined, take-charge woman who challenges the most ruthless villains and looks good doing it.
In the end, “The Widow” is cathartic tourism. The story is not about the Congo, but Georgia and the wrongs she encounters and is moved to fix while there. In this way, both she and the viewers can leave the harsh realities of the Congo behind in the end, but still feel satisfaction for a job well done.
”The Widow” is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.