If you think of grandiose and over-the-top war films with choreographed battle scenes, then probably “Spartacus”, “Braveheart” or “Troy” spring to mind. These battle movies are male-dominated, both in front and behind the camera. While there’s nothing wrong with those films, it would have been great if we could see a complete gender swap but still an equally intense and rousing movie.
Thanks to director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Beyond the Lights”, “The Old Guard“), that’s what you get. While her “The Woman King” feels a bit messy at times, it’s up there with all the battle blockbusters thanks to the highly well-choreographed fight scenes, powerful women and intimate moments.
From the start, you see that this movie will be dominated by a fierce Viola Davis, taking on the role of Nanisca, the Agojie general. She and her fellow warriors kill the men of a nearby village while saving the women. While many women are unharmed, the same can’t be said about Nanisca’s female fighters.
She lost many of them during that battle, so she decides to recruit new warriors under the supervision of Izpogie (Lashana Lynch). This seems like a straight-to-the-point plot; it’s everything but that. One of the possible recruits is the defiant teenager Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). She was offered as a gift to King Ghezo (John Boyega) but she never becomes his wife as Izogie sees her resistance, strength, willpower and fierceness and enlists her.
While training her recruits, Nanisca doesn’t only want to end female repression but also European colonialism. She orders Ghezo to change the strategy regarding selling his people to white slavers and offers him a plan in which the palm oil trade is vital. Nabisco has a lot going on. It becomes even busier and more challenging when Nawa shows her disobedient side even more and when a terrible dream haunts Nanisca. Will this fierce leader be able to ensemble a new group of mighty women and show that girls rule the world, just like Queen B said?
In case you didn’t know, “The Woman King” is based on the actual life events of the Agojie tribe, female warriors who lived in the East African state of Dahomey during the 19th Century. They were clearly, what we would now call, the #TimesUp movement. They’re not the property of men. No, they’re strong women who can make their own decisions and take their lives into their own hands. While this movie might not be 100% accurate regarding historical events, the truth and the vigorous messages are still there.
This is mainly due to the stunning performances. If you’ve seen “Widows” and “Fences”, then you know that Davis gives you a tour de force every single time, and this time is no different. She captivates you in every shot with a highly piercing look, powerful voice and impressive physicality. There’s the perfect balance between emotions and vulnerabilities on one side and violence and fights on the other.
In this movie, she’s being supported by the stunning relatively newcomer Mbedu and the extraordinary Lynch. With an electrifying radiance and her natural acting abilities, Mbedu (“JJC: Johnny Just Come”) shows us that she’s a star we must watch. There’s hope, despair, anger and power in every line and moment.
“The Woman King” can also count on much talent off-screen. The costumes by Geisha Phillips (“Miles Ahead”, “Life”) are majestic, while the very detailed production design by Akin McKenzie (“Wildlife”, “Aftermath”) transports us instantly back into time. The movie becomes alive epic dynamic even more when due to the slick and clever editing by Terilyn A. Shropshire (“Bruised”, “The Old Guard”). To top it all off, there’s the riveting score by Terence Blanchard (“One Night in Miami”, “BlacKkKlansman”)
Sadly, not every aspect of “The Woman King” is as breathtaking as the performances. No, sometimes this movie feels very messy and all over the place. Some storylines feel a bit forced and awkward, and while the script does everything it can to bring the different stories together beautifully, it doesn’t succeed. There’s also the overuse of special effects such as the fake landscapes and the computer-generated extra, which, sadly, take away a lot of the beauty from Polly Morgan’s cinematography.
Yes, it’s finally time we saw female warriors kicking ass in rough-tough battles against men because a story like that has been long overdue. It becomes even better when we see them supporting each other through trauma, friendship and bloodshed. While “The Woman King” could have benefited from a more coherent story (or just fewer storylines) and balanced usage of VFX, it’s still an emotional, thrilling and empowering movie led by an incredible Viola Davis.
“The Woman King” is out now in U.K. cinemas
4th October 2022
THE QUICK SELL
"The Woman King" is the remarkable story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s with skills and a fierceness unlike anything the world has ever seen.