Viola Davis brings heart and ferocity the the historical action-drama “The Woman King”. It’s an exciting stride forward for director Gina Prince-Bythewood whose last film was the 2020 superhero misfire “The Old Guard”. Here she’s working with better material and a considerably larger scale which she utilizes to the fullest in telling this remarkable story centered around a female warrior regiment known as the Agojie.
Set in 1823, “The Woman King” take place in the West African kingdom of Dahomey where the Agojie serve as fierce protectors of their lands under their young yet wise King, Ghezo (John Boyega). Written by Dana Stevens from a story she conceived with Maria Bello, the film sees the always great Davis playing General Nanisca, the esteemed leader of the Agojie. But it’s the well developed supporting characters who make this such a compelling watch.
Prince-Bythewood puts a lot of effort into immersing us in the Dahomey kingdom and culture. She does a good job creating a striking sense of place and setting, especially during the first half. While world building is key, even more time is spent on the characters. Davis’ stoic Nanisca is the anchor, but just as much time is spent with young Nawi (Thusa Mbedu). We see a lot of the story through Nawi’s eyes, from her troubled past to her training to be an Agojie. Mbedu’s performance is full of energy and heart. But the biggest scene-stealer is Lashana Lynch as Amenza, a tenacious Agojie warrior who takes Nawi under her wing. Whether it’s her charisma or her physicality, she’s a magnetic presence.
Some may be surprised at just how much attention is given to the world and the characters, especially after seeing the action-heavy trailer. But that’s not to say we don’t get to see these warrior’s fight. The film opens with an intense battle in a Mahi village between the Agojie and the Oyo, establishing a conflict that escalates as the movie progresses. They meet again later and of course there’s the climactic showdown. The combat is fierce and skillfully shot, although held back a bit by the PG-13 rating.
From there, we’re given a lot to navigate as the story introduces several branching subplots. It’s at its best during Nawi’s training which is where most of the characters and relationships are fleshed out. And there are good scenes of regional tension following the influx of European slave traders and the pact they’ve made with the complicit Oyo Empire.
But not all of the subplots work as well. To give a face to the slavers, we get Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), a smarmy caricature of privilege who just recently took over his father’s slave-trading operation. He feels like a late addition to the script and is too flimsy to be taken seriously. Then there’s Malik (Jordan Bolger), the hunky biracial son of a printer, complete with flowing locks and six-pack abs. A not-so-convincing attraction springs up between him and Nawi, but their relationship never gets above room temperature. And we also get a third act twist that’s fine but a tad too convenient.
The movie ends with a climax that’s formulaic down to its very last beat (if you’ve seen epics like this, you’ll know right where it’s heading). Yet I was with it, mainly because of the exceptional character work in the first half. I was connected to these warriors as they fought for their freedom and against injustice. Thanks to Prince-Bythewood, Stevens, and some truly superb performances, I cared deeply about these fierce, courageous women. And when that’s the case, it’s a lot easier to look past the blemishes. “The Woman King” is out now in theaters.