Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Stars: Viola Davis, John Boyega, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Jordan Bolger, Jimmy Odukoya, Sheila Atim, Jayme Lawson, Masali Baduza.
A rousing full blooded female centric action film like this is something of a rarity in a cinematic landscape dominated by special effects heavy superhero movies. However, in recent years we’ve had films like Gunpowder Milkshake and The 355. Joining that short list is The Woman King, a historical epic set in the African kingdom of Dahomey (now known as Benin) in the mid nineteenth century, a time of colonial occupation and oppression and tribal warfare.
The film has been written by Dana Stephens (Fatherhood, etc)and actress Maria Bello, and is inspired by the true story of the Agojie, a tribe of female warriors who protected the young king of Dahomey. But the film also explores the complex issues of Africa during this turbulent period of colonisation and slavery, and it does touch on the horrors of this archaic institution. However, it seems that Stephens and Bello have taken a few liberties with history here for dramatic purposes and the film has attracted some criticism over its accuracy.
The fictitious Nanisca (Oscar winner Viola Davis, from The Help, etc) is the leader of the Agojie, the fierce female warriors who protect King Gheza (John Boyega). The kingdom is facing a conflict with a powerful rival tribe the Oyo over their involvement in the slave trade with European countries that has made them rich. The Oyo continue to abduct Agojie women for the slave trade. The Agojie have begun the transition away from slaves and are beginning to trading in palm oil. Nanisca is also responsible for training the new recruits to the tribe. Amongst them is Nawi (Thusa Mbedu, from The Underground Railroad, etc), a 19-year-old woman who has been given to the king by her father after she refused an arranged marriage to an elder suitor. Her feisty impetuous nature and spirit captures the eye of Igozie (Lashana Lynch, from No Time To Die, etc), Nanisca’s second in command and advisor. Nanisca also finds herself intrigued by the young woman’s determination as Nawi undergoes a brutal initiation into the ways of the Agojie.
Portugese slave trader Santa Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, from the After series, etc) arrives to make a new deal with King Ghezo, but his offsider Malik (Jordan Bolger, from tv series Peaky Blinders, etc) is appalled by what he witnesses, and when he falls in love with Nawi he tries to free her from bondage.
The film has been muscularly directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who proved her action chops with 2020’s Netflix action thriller The Old Guard, and here she again proves herself a fine director of action and the couple of major battle sequences have a visceral quality. The action scenes are brutal, and the fight choreography is spectacular. Supposedly all of the fight scenes and stunts were shot using practical effects rather than CGI and special effects, which gives them an authenticity. But Prince-Bythewood also manages to find the emotional heart of the film through Nawi’s journey. And of course, there is the usual training montage.
Davis brings depth and a world-weary quality to her performance as the uncompromising and fierce Nanisca and she handles the physical demands of the role well. She makes for a formidable figure, but she also brings a hint of vulnerability to the character that softens her harder edges when a dark secret from her past is revealed. Mbedu acquits herself well in the challenging role of Nawi. Boyega also lends some depth to his role as the conflicted Ghezo. Jimmy Odukoya brings real menace to his role as regional warlord Oba Ade, the leader of the rival Oyo tribe.
The film has been superbly shot in widescreen by cinematographer Polly Morgan (Where The Crawdads Sing, etc), who captures the harsh beauty of the South African landscapes. Terence Blanchard’s rousing score is atmospheric. Gersha Phillips’ costumes are exquisite, and the production design for Ghezo’s palace is also very rich, detailed and lavish.
A story of heroism and courage featuring strong female characters, this brutal and often violent period piece follows in the footsteps of other historical epics like Gladiator and Braveheart.