The Woman King (TIFF) Review

PLOT: In 1823, Nanisca (Viola Davis) is the bold leader of the Agojie, an all-female regiment tasked with protecting the kingdom of Dahomey. Reeling from a traumatic experience where she was taken as a slave, Nanisca is at odds with the slave trade her kingdom participates in but is forced to follow orders. As the nightmares become harder to stave off, she’s tasked with training a new generation of warriors, including the headstrong Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), with whom she shares a surprising connection.

REVIEW: The Woman King is a movie Viola Davis proudly called her magnum opus at CinemaCon, earlier this year. By pushing herself to her physical limit and undergoing a transformation that turned her from a beloved character actress into an action hero, Davis clearly went all out in service of her passion project. A thoughtful and beautifully directed epic, The Woman King is terrifically entertaining, even if it gets bogged down by an extraneous romantic subplot and the PG-13 rating, which makes the action sequences tamer than they should be.

One thing worth noting is the controversy that’s already come up regarding the film’s depiction of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Many expected that the kingdom participating in the slave trade would be left out of the movie, but the opposite is true. One of the movie’s central conflicts is that Davis’s Nanisca is boldly against the practice, while her king (John Boyega’s King Ghezo) participates somewhat reluctantly. I’ll leave it to the historians to say whether or not this is accurate, but they at least tackle the subject head-on and make The Woman King a much more well-rounded historical epic in that regard than some gave it credit for based on the trailer alone.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s movie is a solid historical epic benefitting from a tremendous cast, led by Davis at her most badass. If people like Bob Odenkirk and Liam Neeson can become action heroes in their fifties, Davis seems bound to show people she can too. Her raw intensity is backed up by a newly jacked physique that makes her an imposing action heroine, and she performs exceptionally well in the numerous action scenes. However, her pathos and empathy for not only her people but also those she helps conquer are what really makes Nanisca an absorbing lead. Lashana Lynch backs her up as Izogie, the band’s most formidable warrior, and it’s another badass role for the actress, who seems a natural fit for the action genre.

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The Woman King uses a classic formula to tell the Agojie’s story. We’ve all seen the movie where the rebellious new addition to the team has to fall in line, and Thuso Mbedu (Nawi) is this movie’s Maverick. She’s shown to be a headstrong villager who rebuffs her parents when they try to force her to marry, forcing them to join the Agojie. She proves to be a natural, with Izogie taking her under her wing, but she’s also headstrong and refuses to follow orders. The conflict/admiration between her and Nanisca is out of the action movie handbook, but it works. It helps that Mbedu has a lot of charisma and presence, in addition to nailing the action scenes by adopting a unique style of fighting we see her come up with throughout the movie.

However, The Woman King also falters when it tries to attach an extraneous romance between Nawi and a half-Dahomey/half-Portuguese slaver, played by Jordan Bolger. It feels like it comes out of another movie, with lots of breathless scenes of Bolger shirtless while Mbedu, unrealistically, seems drawn to a man that associates with the same folks that routinely enslave her people. The relationships between the Agojie were enough; it didn’t need extra romance taking up running time that would have been better used on some of the other new Agojie recruits.

Another issue that isn’t Prince-Blythewood’s fault is that the movie is hampered by a PG-13 rating that robs the action scenes of their impact. The sound team works overtime to give us a sense of brutality, but there’s no blood or gore when Davis and her crew are hacking adversaries to pieces. It leaves the battles looking a little too clean-cut, but I suppose this was a compromise they had to make to get a PG-13. It’s outrageous that a movie like The Woman King has to cut back on the violence so much while thousands of people can die in the latest superhero movie. Yet more evidence that the MPAA is hopelessly outdated, but I digress.

Ultimately, The Woman King is a well-done historical action movie with its director’s strong take on the material and impressive performances all around. While I could have done without the romantic subplot and used a bit more gore, I still had a good time from beginning to end and can give it an easy recommendation.


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