A widow’s might
The Widow is intelligent television that probes the dark side of the international aid industry
This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Hands up who has heard of coltan and knows what it is? Something to do with rare minerals, maybe mobile telephones? Coltan is an ore, known as “Black Gold”, from which is extracted tantalum — a vital component of the microchips used in smartphones, computers, cameras and much more. No tantalum, no modern world.
Our ease of communication, travel and access to information comes at a high price. Much of the world’s supply of coltan is mined in Congo, sometimes by children. Big Tech and the Congolese government say they are taking steps to ensure that mineral supplies are responsibly sourced. But that may be much easier said than done, if the absorbing thriller series The Widow, now showing on Amazon Prime, is anything to go by.
It’s the Coltan backstory that lifts The Widow from run-of-the-mill international thrillers
The Widow is Georgia Wells, ably played by Kate Beckinsale. As far as Georgia knows, her husband Will, an aid worker, was killed in an air crash in Congo three years ago — until she sees someone who is apparently wearing Will’s baseball cap in news footage of riots in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital. Is he still alive? This is quite thin as inciting incidents go, but is still enough for Georgia to jet to Kinshasa to look for him.
There, she is quickly drawn into a dangerous conspiracy where corrupt aid workers are in cahoots with warlords to take control of a coltan supply line and smuggle it out to Rwanda. Meanwhile, in Rotterdam, Ariel, an Icelander, is trying to have his blindness cured.
Ariel was on the same aeroplane as Will. But was Will really on board? Georgia rushes around Kinshasa and Congo looking alternately distraught and determined, but her tenacity is engaging. And she too has a past, and turns out to be quite handy with an AK-47 when needed.
It’s the Coltan backstory that lifts The Widow from run-of-the-mill international thrillers. Weaving together a socially aware storyline with the demands of TV drama is a tricky balancing act. Too much virtue signalling, and the story will become didactic and viewers will switch off. Not enough, and it can feel exploitative.
The Widow more or less gets it right. This is intelligent television that probes the dark side of the international aid industry, where well-paid officials, surrounded by extreme poverty, enjoy luxurious lives in plush villas and air-conditioned SUVs.
The African characters have agency, whether they are crusading activists, everyday people or warlords. The scenes where a militia prepares to launch a raid on a coltan mine and the subsequent bloodshed are visceral and chilling.
Congo itself was judged too dangerous to film in, so South Africa supplied the jungles and forests, while Cape Town stood in for Kinshasa. The classy visuals and lush photography bring a strong sense of place. The real star is Shalom Nyandiko, the teenage actress who plays Adidja, a child soldier forced to execute a prisoner.
The real star is Shalom Nyandiko, the teenage actress who plays Adidja, a child soldier forced to execute a prisoner
At this point, can I admit to feeling mildly jealous? A few years ago, I wrote a thriller called The Geneva Option, featuring ex-Mossad agent Yael Azoulay, who takes a job as the secret negotiator for the United Nations secretary-general. Yael uncovers a plot by rogue UN officials to trigger a war in Congo so they can take control of supplies of coltan. General mayhem ensues.
The book was optioned by Hollywood, but rights are once again available. Perhaps I should send a copy to the producers of Allenby, a nightlife drama set in Tel Aviv showing on the newish Izzy subscription channel that offers on-demand viewing of Israeli programmes that haven’t (yet) made it to Netflix or Amazon Prime.
For a small country, Israel produces a lot of high quality television. Izzy also has a stand-out docudrama Sabena Hijacking — My Version about the 1972 takeover of a flight by Palestinian terrorists. Israeli commandos, including Benjamin Netanyahu and former prime minister Ehud Barak, stormed the plane. Seeing them reminisce brings a fascinating insight into the men behind the politicians’ masks.
But beyond the wham-bam, take-him-down action stuff, Israelis are producing engrossing programmes which dig much deeper into the complexities, fissures and stresses of everyday life. This being Israel, these are similar to those of other countries, only much more so.
For a small country, Israel produces a lot of high quality television
Allenby, named for one of the main streets in Tel Aviv, is unlikely to feature on the Tel Aviv tourist board’s viewing list. Based on a best-selling novel by Gadi Taub, it shows a side of the city that most visitors never see and would probably be glad to miss: the uber-sleazy part of its nightlife.
Much of the story unfolds around a lap dance bar. Yet amid the violence, betrayals, drug-taking and frantic, sweaty coupling there is also loyalty and tenderness. Romi Aboulafia gives a superb performance as Nookie, a sex-addicted stripper and lap dancer. One half of her wants a proper relationship with her journalist on-off boyfriend while the other wants to run a mile — and often does.
Beneath their groovy bohemian facades, most of Tel Aviv’s hipsters, it seems, are seeking the same as all of us: love, sometimes leavened with redemption. But Allenby Street, as this intriguing, eye-opening series makes clear, is probably not the place to find it.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe