'The Woman King' Review: Viola Davis Headlines A Group Of African Warriors
When you ask for more obstacle courses in cinema, you shall receive an obstacle course like one featured in The Woman King which is a thunderous historical war film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens. Set in the Dahomey kingdom in 1823, area nowadays known as Benin, an all-women group of warriors called Agojie is in charge of defending the kingdom and King Ghezo (John Boyega) against the expanding Oyo Empire's army led by General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya) whilst being involved in slave trade. General Nanisca (Viola Davis) leads the Agojie, determined to change the kingdom's ways.
19-year-old Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is forced by her adoptive father to join the Agojie, her arrogance causing clashes with strict Nanisca while she finds kinship with fellow warrior Izogie (Lashana Lynch) before getting involved with Malik (Jordan Bolger), a half-Dahomean who's assisting Europeans in the trade.
Without wasting much time, Prince-Bythewood throws you right in the middle of the action which rules much of the character arcs and their lives. Importantly, there is still time found to establish each of the main characters'—Nanisca, Nawi and Izogie—distinct personalities so those action scenes have an emotional anchor in addition to being big, brash spectacles. In fact, Prince-Bythewood is clearly honing her style with The Woman King as while things can be brutal and epic, there is focus on the frames to highlight great filmmaking qualities. Gersha Phillips' costume design is a huge standout, crafting so many looks which stand on their own that you even lose count of them, but also being in perfect harmony with equally unique efforts accomplished by hairstyling and makeup teams.
You would imagine that kind of care to treat every character on their own terms helps actors to really dig deep and let themselves go in the process and certainly that is what it feels like. Davis' physical movement constantly tells everything you need to know about the character which is remarkable when her fight choreography makes her seem 20 years younger. Lynch appears from the background to deliver a performance with most range, flawlessly executing moments with humour or stunts-heavy chaos when required. Mbedu sadly has the trickiest role since her arc often corresponds with dull storytelling from Stevens, pairing her in a stiff romance with Bolger who is never able to match Mbedu's vulnerability.
This leads to many character motivations and revelations that just don't compare with the film's relentless action, underscored effectively by Terence Blanchard, or a sense of community that invites you into the Agojie's lives, which are the parts that actually stick with you afterwards.
Smileys: Costume design, Lashana Lynch, hairstyling, directing
Frowneys: Jordan Bolger
Lying down might be uncomfortable when there's an extra tooth.