Marlborough Express - The Saturday Express, Marlborough
Putting a fresh spin on Hollywood epic
The Woman King (R13, 135min) Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood ★★★★1⁄2
The Kingdom of Dahomey was located in land that is today the West African nation of Benin. The Dahomey were a militaristic people, they enslaved and sold their captives to Europe – as other African nations did – and they rose and fell on the tides of history. The kingdom ceased to exist in 1904, after a brace of disastrous wars with the better-equipped occupying French.
The Dahomey are remembered today for one extraordinary fact – they had an all-woman army that accounted for about a third of the Dahomey military. And whoever they fought, everyone, including the French, said they were just about the toughest, fiercest, besttrained and most disciplined soldiers they ever encountered.
The Europeans who met the Agojie – the woman army – inevitably called them ‘‘The Dahomey Amazons’’, after the wa¯ hine toa of Greek mythology. The Agojie were the real-life inspiration for the guards of Wakanda, in the Black Panther comics and movies.
The Woman King is set in the 1820s. Around the kingdom, rival states are planning invasion, as the Europeans look on or openly encourage warfare, knowing it will keep the people weakened and prices depressed. In a farming village near the king’s fortress – home to the Agojie – a young woman named Nawi is sold as a wife to a wealthy local landowner. But she has other ideas and flattens the old boy with a slap.
The Agojie – this is true, and it makes me smile to type it – drew many of their soldiers from the ranks of ‘‘disobedient wives’’ and ‘‘disrespectful daughters’’ who were left at their gates by the disappointed men in their lives.
Once inside, Nawi (The Underground Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu) and her fellow recruits embark on the Agojie’s legendarily tough training regime – and also meets General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the leader of this army.
At 135 minutes, The Woman King is pretty brisk for the genre. In the opening scenes, as Nawi and her comrades are made ready for war, there is definitely a feeling that the editor is rushing through the material in order to get to the stuff in the trailer. But apart from that criticism, there really is nothing here not to like. Viola Davis is a lock for award nominations – and they will be richly deserved. Davis is flat-out magnificent here, as a ferocious heart to the film – but within a performance that turns every vulnerability into a strength.
Around Davis, everyone involved – Lashana Lynch, John Boyega, Sheila Atim and musician Angelique Kidjo all appear – is terrific. An actor I’d never seen, Jimmy Odukoya, turns up as the chief antagonist of the film – and dials in a performance that should have a few Hollywood casting directors reaching for their phone.
Cinematographer Polly Morgan (Venom, A Quiet Place 2) and director Gina PrinceBythewood (The Old Guard) let their cameras feast on the sunlight, dust and blood on offer here. In its best moments, The Woman King is quite astonishingly beautiful to watch.
The Woman King sticks closely to the expected beats of any historical epic set amongst soldiers.
To make the numbingly obvious comparisons, this is at least as enjoyable a film as Braveheart or Gladiator. And The Woman King is maybe slightly more historically accurate than either.
Stories of heroism, loyalty, implacable enemies and epic battles-to-win-the-day are as old as Hollywood. The Woman King makes the genre fresh again. Go and see it on the biggest screen you can find.
❚ The Woman King is now screening in cinemas nationwide.