“The Woman King” is not a typical TIFF premiere. That’s not to say that it doesn’t fit in, but pure action flicks usually don’t launch alongside films by Darren Aronofsky and Sarah Polley. That’s why it’s so surprising that this film is assuredly going to be more well received than the typical TIFF Oscar bait.
“The Woman King” utilizes a very similar roadmap that films like Braveheart and Gladiator have relied on narratively, but there’s enough flair to ensure that director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic stands on its own. The real draw is the performances from Viola Davis and others. Davis, in a role we’ve never seen her in before, takes command of the screen in every scene much like her character, General Nanisca. Nanisca leads an elite group of female warriors called the Agojie, who protect the king and most importantly the nation of Dahomey. Their king, Ghezo (played by John Boyega, who matches the intensity of his female warriors in the few scenes he features in) allows Nanisca to advise him on many matters as a member of his council, alongside his seemingly countless wives. Much of the initial controversy surrounding this film regards Dahomey’s own involvement in the slave trade that it seeks to end in this story, yet it is the casting-aside of Ghezo’s treatment of women that will likely bother some audiences. However, this is a piece of historical fiction, and surely most will overlook these liberties taken in favor of some exciting action.
Speaking of action, this movie’s set-pieces are…fine. Although the brutality is certainly there, and some scenes push the edges of that PG-13 rating, they unfortunately can’t seem to hold up to some of the more recent battle scenes on the big and small screens. The final battle may remind many of the ‘Battle of The Bastards’ from HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, with the two sides colliding in a flurry of bloodshed. However, “Game of Thrones” better captures the mayhem and chaos of battle, while the fight choreography of “The Woman King” led by Daniel Hernandez feels somewhat bland. Some of protagonist Nawi’s (Thuso Mbedu) observations and ingenuity do help make a battle halfway through the movie slightly more interesting; without spoiling much, alongside “Prey” releasing in July, it is a great year for women-wielding-blades-attached-to-ropes enthusiasts. Additionally, some of the tropes of past action scenes are turned on their heads. The slick, oily muscles and bodies that always seem to appear in your standard action fare for aesthetic reasons (Zack Snyder is particularly guilty of this, for better or for worse) actually has a practical use for the warriors; the Agojie rub an oil on their skin to prevent their opponents from grabbing onto them easily.
It’s surprising that the best choreography appears not in the numerous battles but rather in the traditional dances and chants that the Dahomey people use. The hundreds of extras jumping up and down and spinning, their bodies synced while they hype up the Agojie before an incursion into enemy territory, is significantly more powerful than any of the action set pieces. The vocality of the warriors, consistently using the original native African dialect during major scenes, contributes to the intensity of the film. “The Woman King” promotes the ideal of unison and sisterhood, and that unity is felt significantly more in the moments not marred by bloodshed.
It’s the performances of this film that set it apart from your standard historical war film. Many of the performances shine not in the line delivery but in both the silent and overwhelmingly loud spaces. Davis in particular doesn’t need to say anything to convey her feelings. She’s often at her best here when she’s alone, the camera lingering on her in the moments after a conversation, her eyes telling the audience everything they need to know. However, it is newcomer Mbedu who leaves an impact long after the credits roll. Holding her own in scenes with Davis and Lashana Lynch (who plays Nawi’s mentor, providing some surprising levity to many scenes), Mbedu brings a wide-eyed innocence to the character, playing a new recruit to the Agojie who seeks to learn everything there is to know about being a woman warrior. There is, of course, the classic training montage in which Nawi stumbles early on but quickly picks up the pace, revealing her empathy for her fellow trainees along the way. This empathy is scolded by the leadership of the Agojie, who continually preach discipline. Nawi eventually teaches her leaders the power of empathy, changing Nanisca’s view of her past decisions and her strategies. Mbedu and Davis combine for some tear-jerking moments in the last half of the film, with one scene in particular so raw and intense that the following scene’s own emotional moment seems lackluster in comparison. “The Woman King” would not feel this powerful without Mbedu, and although Davis is at her best here, it is ultimately Mbedu that ties this film together.
“The Woman King” flows incredibly well, with action scenes intercutting character development and emotional reveals. It is only a side story, involving a half-white, half-Dahomey man who falls for Nawi, that brings the story to a jolting halt. This cliche, almost Disney-like plot of forbidden romance is certainly not necessary and barely contributes to Nawi’s development. However, much of the film is a triumphant story of a community fighting back against its oppressors and their damaging ideas. For a standard action film, “The Woman King” rises above the rest, with the best performances certainly to come out of TIFF, and contentiously the best this year.
The Hollywood Handle will be covering TIFF all week, so keep your eyes on this page for more reviews and exclusive coverage of one of North America’s biggest film festivals!