Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Available in wide theatrical release
The adoration heaped upon “The Woman King” following its recent Toronto International Film Festival screening isn’t unwarranted. The movie is a handsome historical war mini-epic with shades of “Braveheart” and “Gladiator.”
But as much as I was astonished by the criminally unknown story of the African all-female fighting force, I was frustrated by the film’s shifting character focus and the staid, traditional narrative structure. And despite playing the title character, there’s not enough Viola Davis in this movie.
“The Woman King” will make viewers consult Google to read more about the West African kingdom of Dahomey and its highly-trained warrior women that rose to prominence in the 1800s. The all-female army, known as the Agojie, was recruited by the Dahomey ruling class because the slave trade sapped men from their empire. This necessary decision proved to be something of a masterstroke because the women became widely known as feared, effective soldiers.
In “The Woman King,” we meet Nanisca (an impressive, muscular Davis), the brutal general of Dahomey King Ghezo (“Star Wars” star John Boyega). Nanisca is a military leader that commands the deep respect of those in her command. Her steadfast second is the tall, thin, and skilled Amenza (a perfectly cast Sheila Atim), a woman capable of facing down most any man on the battlefield.
Following a night assault on invaders who seek to enslave their people, Nanisca invites formerly enslaved people to join her legion. The invitation isn’t a life and death ultimatum. While some take the offer, others leave to find a new life. Nanisca doesn’t judge; she wants willing warriors who fight without hesitation or second thought. Her success as a general depends greatly on passion and desire that compensates for relative physical deficiencies when facing down larger men.
Meanwhile, in the Dahomey village, a teen named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) rejects an arranged marriage to an older man. Her frustrated father turns her over to the Agojie to be either a warrior or a present for the King. Nawi agrees to be trained as a warrior.
The Agojie boot camp is vicious, and only a few will emerge to become full-fledged Agojie soldiers. And in charge of the training is Izojie (“No Time to Die’s” Lashana Lynch), a drill instructor whose fighting acumen is to be feared and emulated.
In one scene, teased in the movie’s trailers, we see Izojie squaring off against a man in a competition that places a double-pointed spear between them. This wicked game of chicken has each competitor walking closer and closer to the other as the spear digs ever deeper into their respective shoulders. We learn quickly that an Agojie warrior can withstand pain that a man cannot.
As Nawi nears the end of her training, a warlord named Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya) attempts to make a deal with King Ghezo over the slave trade. Naturally, this potential business plan runs afoul of General Nanisca’s moral code, setting up an eventual showdown between the two weapons of war.
The complicated relationship between the King and his beloved woman general would be enough for an entire movie. Still, the script co-written by actress Maria Bello and Dana Stevens inserts distracting romantic elements that undercut the strength of the narrative. A false love story softens the battle sequences that should predominate. While this wrong-headed thread doesn’t entirely derail the film, it reeked of manipulation in an attempt to broaden the film’s appeal.
What we really want to see is an athletic Viola Davis wielding a curved blade and vanquishing her foes. And when we see her in action, “The Woman King” is bloody marvelous.
But the other problem with the screenplay is its bland, flat shape. The structure lacks ambition. We see the training of Nawi and skirmishes that lead up to a larger battle, but the big moments didn’t have the tremendous emotional impact that should have been possible.
There is a sequence in which Nanisca decides to run from her village to another on what could be a suicide mission. It’s an impulsive decision, but you know that the brilliant military commander is on the winning side and calculating her strategic assault with each breathless stride forward. To me, this is where the movie should have begun. Make us wonder where she’s headed and then tell us why.
Instead, by the time she makes the long jog from her village, the entire event feels anti-climatic. The forced romance is like something grafted from another film altogether. And Nanisca’s revelations are equally questionable coincidences that are the stuff of classic movie magic. Just give us an invading force of slavers that must be repelled and put Nanisca at the center of the fray.
Aside from the gritty, if also firmly PG-13 action sequences, the palace intrigue is a subplot worthy of further exploration. The uncertain relationship between King Ghezo and General Nanisca is a complex and layered one. I wanted more of their interactions that offer emotional and humorous exchanges. The path to becoming a woman king is fraught with dangers that aren’t entirely faced on the battlefield.
Oscar-winner Davis (see 2017’s “Fences”) is an unusual choice for Nanisca. Davis transformed herself physically for the role. However, she isn’t an actress I would immediately think of as an action hero. But it’s Davis’ charisma that towers over her co-stars powerfully. With her intense stare and piercing focus, she makes an intimidating military commander that convinces viewers of her prowess. And I wanted more.
“The Woman King” needed more Davis and less, well, less of almost everything else. The youthful Mbedu is perfectly fine as the young Nawi. But place Davis in a fight with the angular and quietly intimidating Atim and the charismatic Lynch by her side, and you have a team worthy of a Marvel blockbuster. I particularly liked the scenes in which Nanisca and her lieutenants plan their attacks and execute them brilliantly. In these action sequences, “The Woman King” shines most brightly.
By bringing attention to this previously underappreciated story of ultimate woman empowerment, “The Woman King” is undeniably successful and influential. But in an attempt to reach the widest possible audience, the film waters down its edgier components weakening its message.