‘The Woman King’ Ventures Into New Cinematic Territory

One of the great strengths of the new film The Woman King, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, is how keenly it knows its dimensions. It proudly wears both its old-fashioned construction—this is a sword-and-sandal epic in the style of yesteryear—alongside the freshness of its perspective. An action-drama sourced from history (while riffing considerably on that history), The Woman King is a sturdy testament to how renewed a staid form can feel when it’s stretched to include different narratives. 

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King is set in the 1820s in the kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now Benin. Slavers from Europe and the Americas have ravaged the land and its people and stoked wars between West African empires. A young Dahomey king, Ghezo (John Boyega), sits on the throne. He’s entertained by a coterie of wives, leaving the tough stuff, the fighting and dying, to the Agojie, a legion of female warriors renowned for their military prowess. 

Dahomey has grown rich by participating in the slave trade, which puts it in uneasy moral context. The Woman King is aware of that fraught history, and takes care in addressing it. What could be a blunt and thrashing battle film is instead given thoughtful texture by Prince-Bythewood, screenwriter Dana Stevens, and a strong ensemble of actors. Ostensibly at the lead is Viola Davis, a titan of the entertainment industry who nonetheless has been given precious few opportunities to headline a studio film like this. As Nanisca, the general of the Agojie, Davis is in her stentorian element, stern but accessible. 

Perhaps the true protagonist of the film, though, is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a headstrong teenager handed over to the Agojie by her disapproving father. Thus begins her training, which The Woman King depicts in scenes warmly familiar to fans of all sorts of films, from Spartacus to Top Gun. Mbedu, such a commanding revelation on The Underground Railroad, sharply illustrates both Nawi’s impetuous independence and her dawning sense of duty to her sister-warriors. She has an invaluable mentor-friend in Izogie (Lashana Lynch), while Amenza (Sheila Atim) provides wise counsel—and gives a little pushback—to Nanisca. 

While The Woman King enjoys the company of these formidable women, it does not let us forget that they will soon be fighting for their lives. Dahomey is threatened by its bitter rivals and oppressors, the Oyo, who sell captured Dahomey people to slavers, disappearing them on boats and slowly decimating the community. (Dahomey does the same to its captives, it must be said, however much Nanisca hopes to end that practice.) For a film that has been marketed as a rumbling combat movie, The Woman King is surprisingly, but not disappointingly, sparing with its action. When tensions do give way to violence, Prince-Bythewood employs the same intuitive physics that lent such snap to The Old Guard

The fighting registers that much more potently because we have spent so much downtime with these women of war. Even so, Nanisca could be more fleshed out. There’s a trauma in her past that comes to bear mightily on the present, but the film doesn’t do enough to hone and deepen that story. Nanisca remains elusive, despite Davis’s magnetic presence. 

A perfunctory romance—or something close to romance—that’s shoehorned into the film should either have been tossed out entirely or more thoroughly developed. It sometimes seems as if The Woman King is straining to contain its ambition, reluctant to blow things up to the maximalist scale of a true, three-hour epic. I wish that Prince-Bythewood (and her backers at Sony) had just gone for it, swelling the film to allow proper room for its many characters and tangling plotlines. 

It’s there, maybe, where some studio skittishness can be detected. The film has a relatively modest budget (a reported $50 million) for something of this scope, and perhaps there was a tacit directive to keep things as trim as possible. Which is a shame. A great movie glimmers at the edges of a good one, a shadow of what could have been, had The Woman King been afforded the time and resources to realize its full potential. 

Still, what’s been delivered is solid, righteous entertainment, cognizant of troubled history but editing and manipulating just as so many period films about Romans and other conquerors have done for decades. The Woman King stands confidently in that tradition, while offering the thrill of the new. How exciting it is to see onscreen a place and people—a whole grand saga of civilization—that have never before been given that treatment. The Woman King reminds us of how much unclaimed territory there is yet to explore on film of any genre, planting its flag firmly in long-unacknowledged earth.


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