As The Woman King builds tension, it gains momentum while telling a unique story that is grand in scale, emotional at heart, and well executed.
Gina Prince-Bythewood is back with another phenomenal film. The Woman King assembles an incredible ensemble cast to tell the story of the Agojie, once called the Dahomey Amazons, an all-woman warrior tribe. The film is an action epic with excellent and well-choreographed fight sequences — one of the best in a long while — that doesn't forego the character dynamics at the core of its story. As The Woman King builds tension, it gains momentum while telling a unique story that is grand in scale, emotional at heart, and well executed in almost every way.
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Set in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in 1823, the all-female Agojie warriors continue to fight on behalf of King Ghezo (John Boyega) against the dominating Oyo Empire. Led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the Agojie — including stern, but free-spirited Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim), Nanisca’s second-in-command and confidant — battle the Oyo, taking those they captured to be sold into the slave trade in exchange for weapons from the Europeans. (It’s a subject The Woman King handles carefully.) Elsewhere, 19-year-old Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is offered to King Ghezo by her father, who is angry he cannot marry her off. She is quickly taken under the wing of Izogie, who offers her a chance to train with and join the Agojie as a warrior, promising the sisterhood will always be there for her.
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The Woman King looks and feels like a movie that doesn’t get made anymore. Most recently, The Northman came close, but it ultimately lacked the character development needed to make such a film of its magnitude work. The Woman King is Gladiator-esque in that it’s heavily focused on character-driven drama, but with the spectacle that makes it an altogether stunning watch. The musical score by Terence Blanchard is hypnotic, the cinematography by Polly Morgan resplendent, and the costumes and production design by Gersha Phillips and Akin McKenzie, respectively, are truly a sight to behold. Everything comes together exquisitely and, though the film is at times conventional, it leans into its drama, its action, and its characters with intensity and emotional weight. Nothing is too over-the-top and, though the action scenes may be violent (not enough to make give it an R rating), there is a vulnerability and fiery camaraderie that comes with the sisterhood that is the Agojie.
The film is led by Viola Davis, who delivers an outstanding performance as Nanisca. There is a lot that weighs on her shoulders, a burden and trauma she carries. She is not only contending with her past, but with Dahomey’s politics and future. Davis explores the layers of her character’s interiority with immense vulnerability and nuance. The actress takes on a role that is physically and emotionally demanding with depth, strength, and grace. While Davis is always great, The Woman King boasts a spectacular ensemble that works well together. Lashana Lynch, who didn’t get nearly enough shine in No Time to Die, is excellent. She brings the humor, emotion, and fierceness required of an Agojie warrior. Thuso Mbedu is especially a standout. She nearly overshadows Davis as the bold Nawi who is trying to find her place within the Agojie. Mbedu engages with Nawi’s rebellious spirit and big heart, balancing each with ease. Sheila Atim and John Boyega are also wonderful, rounding out a memorable cast. Each of these characters have flaws and that is what makes them engaging and oh so human. They must overcome hurdles, emotional and physical, which is what makes The Woman King all the more powerful on that front.
The Woman King has enough action sequences to please, though it thankfully doesn’t overdo it with the brutality. It’s just enough to showcase the violent nature of the fights without lingering too long on the gore. What’s more, the fight choreography is stunning, as is Prince-Bythewood’s directing in these scenes. It’s the kind of action that one can appreciate, shown in all its glory without employing camera work that would shift away or make it hard to see. The film is epic in scope, but intimate when it comes to its personal story. There is plenty of drama, and the tension rises to a boiling point that will leave audiences cheering and rooting for the Agojie at every turn.
The film is an uplifting crowd-pleaser, certainly, and the combination of the character and political drama with the big action scenes work exceptionally well. The weakest link is Nawi’s romance with Jordan Bolger’s character, a Dahomey descendant who returns in search of his roots, simply because it isn’t as fully developed as many of the film’s other relationships. Minor hiccups aside, The Woman King is a blockbuster with a lot of heart and a clear story that is tightly written; it’s well worth the watch.
The Woman King premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2022. The film releases in theaters on September 16. It is 135 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity.
The Woman King
Release Date: 2022-09-16