THE WOMAN KING (TIFF 2022) – Review by Cate Marquis

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Do you like an epic film, one with rousing battle scenes, exciting fight choreography, a great story and memorable characters? Then The Woman King is for you, because it has it all. Yes, Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s The Woman King, a historical epic set in early 19th century Africa starring Viola Davis, is all that – and right out of the gate, was a big hit at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The history-based story takes place in 1823 in the prosperous West African Kingdom of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), where a new king, Ghezo (John Boyega), has ascended to the throne, and there is still a lot uncertain about his reign. Dahomey has been at war with an aggressive neighboring kingdom, the Oyo Empire, and the Oyo army is making thinly-disguised raids on Dahomey villages, using the guns and horses it acquired through trade with the Europeans to demand tribute and to take prisoners who are then sold the European and American slave merchants.

Dahomey is defended by a legion of fierce female warriors, the Agojie, lead by the wise and battle-scarred General Nanisca. In this narrative, Viola Davis dominates the screen as Nanisca. Davis may be best known for her many fine performances in dramas, but here she masterfully plays the action hero, crafting a fascinating character who is not only an inspired commander, but also a valued advisor to the king. She navigates court intrigues with the same skill she shows on the battlefield. Davis also adds a deeper, human layer to her character, as she grapples with her own personal demons in private moments, aided by her right-hand woman and longtime friend Amenza, played with strength and sensitivity by Uganda-born actor Sheila Atim. South African-born Thuso Mbedu is a stand-out as the ambitious young Nawi, handling the action scenes and the dramatic ones with equal ease. Lashana Lynch stands out as charismatic trainer/warrior Izogie, a laughing, clever, relentless warrior who takes young Nawi under her wing.

Scripted by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens, the warrior narrative starts in full when Nawi’s father presents his teenage daughter at the palace gate as a “gift for the king” after the strong-willed girl refused to wed the would-be husband her father has picked for her, a rich older man who slaps her as soon as he meets her. Nawi is taken to the compound of the Agojie, where she eagerly joins other recent recruits in their rigorous training. The Agojie swear an oath not to marry or have children, devoting themselves solely to the sisterhood and the defense of their homeland. Historically, there really was such an all-woman army in Dahomey.

Gina Prince-Blythewood, whose previous films include Love and Basketball and The Old Guard, gives audiences a thrilling, kick-ass epic with all the trimmings. The Woman King excels on all levels. It’s entertaining and inspiring. It brilliantly mixes action, drama, history and pageantry in this engrossing, exciting story built around tough women warriors.

Battle scenes are electrifying, with terrific fight-choreography that blends martial arts with lightning fast stage combat and effects. The enemy has guns, albeit early 19th century ones, and horses, which make the odds look uneven, but the fierce, resourceful Agojie warriors out-think and out-maneuver their male adversaries time and again. The battles have a surprising grace, but the audience also is further delighted by pre-battle and celebratory dance scenes with the Agojie showing off more thrilling moves.

Colorful costumes, from the uniforms of the women warriors to the gorgeous robes worn in the court of Dahomey, add to the films visual delights, along with the authentic-looking sets and South African shooting locations.

A mesmerizing epic with history, drama, action and memorable characters, The Woman King delivers on all levels.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.