The historical epic can often feel pretty old fashioned and have a “been there, done that” feeling these days. After, haven’t so many of the pivotal events in human history already been covered? Well, The Woman King is here to offer a counterpoint to that, showcasing a story we’ve never seen on screen before. Anchored by a strong lead turn and some very solid fight sequences, this is an action epic that’s somewhat old school in its plot beats and presentation, but very much unique in terms of the actual story it’s depicting. A high profile debut here at the Toronto International Film Festival should precede a healthy box office later on this month.
The Woman King is at its best when our heroines are kicking ass. The dramatic beats and subplots are fine, but they lack some of the consistent effectiveness that the fight scenes do. The focus is split pretty evenly, but it’s clear where the more successful work resides. The characters are well drawn, but some of the plot beats leave something to be desired. The battles, however? They’re spot on.
This is inspired by the true story of the Agojie, the all-female warriors charged with protecting the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. Led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), we meet them in the midst of a bloody yet successful mission. Greeted by King Ghezo (John Boyega), Nanisca’s troops are a force to be reckoned with. She has the King’s ear and often is a strong voice when he seeks the counsel of others in the camp.
At the same time, the strong willed teenager Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is brought to the Agojie and handed over by her father after she refuses to marry. Initially seen as a long shot recruit, she impresses Izogie (Lashana Lynch), and even Nanisca. However, she struggles with following orders, having a spirit that won’t easily be broken. As the next generation of recruits are trained, a large scale battle is looming, with the very future of the kingdom on the line.
Viola Davis leads a solid cast, disappearing into this role. Physically demanding and full of emotional gravitas, she’s the right woman for the job. The closest thing occasionally to comic relief comes from Lashana Lynch as a somewhat sassy warrior. John Boyega is under-used, but his King is hardly a forgettable one. As for Thuso Mbedu, she’s kind of our audience surrogate, and her evolution as a warrior is well drawn out. Supporting players here consist of Sheila Atim and Jimmy Odukoya, among others.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood knows how to craft a sword and sandals style action epic. The Woman King may not be as kinetic as her previous action work, but with the strong cast, she’s more than up to the task of thrilling. The script by Dana Stevens (with a Story By credit going to Maria Bello) is a bit on the standard side, but it’s in service of the old school dramatic spectacle on hand. One particular subplot, which I won’t spoil, takes up way too much screen time for the small payoff, but it’s a tiny complaint, to be sure.
The Woman King played like gangbusters here at TIFF. Will general audiences respond as positively as the festival audience that Toronto revealed the flick in front of? That remains to be seen, but as a mainstream action epic, it has plenty to offer. Awards prospects are likely a bit muddy and TBD, but if you’re just looking for something solid to dig your teeth into, this movie will certainly do the trick, and then some.