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The Woman King review – Viola Davis leads a thrillingly visceral action romp

Gina Prince-Bythewood's historical epic puts Black women front and centre, combining the best of Hollywood's past and future

“The kind of movie they don’t make any more” has become a common enough descriptor of any major films with old-school sensibilities, but Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King is a much rarer thing – a film that harks back to an earlier era of blockbusters that could only have been made on such a scale in the present moment. A handsomely-mounted fire-and-blood historical epic, it also focuses almost exclusively on Black women, saturating its frames with imagery that genuinely feels like Hollywood taking a leap forward.

The setting here is Dahomey (in what is now present-day Benin) in 1823, a kingdom beset by threats from both Portuguese colonisers and other West African empires such as the Oyo. Dahomey’s secret weapon, though, is the Agojie, an Amazonian army of all-female warriors, led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis). Mighty on the battlefield, Nanisca is also a political visionary, seeking to both expand Dahomey territories and end their reliance on the lucrative but poisonous Slave Trade with the Europeans, ambitious dual aims that put her life and her standing with the king, Ghezo (John Boyega) in precarious positions.

It’s when the Agojie are in action that The Woman King is at its absolute best, cleaving through brutal battle scenes with crunchy choreography and some great stunt work. Prince-Bythewood proved her big-budget action bona fides with Netflix’s The Old Guard back in 2020, and she puts that expertise to brilliant work here, expanding to a larger scope as entire battalions clash, giving the women different, individualised fighting styles, and keeping things fresh when we move into the one-on-one bouts. The night-time raids are a particular highlight, superb lighting giving a luxuriant glow to the actors and the locations.

Every one of the women here genuinely convince as warriors, each one fighting realistically for their build – Davis and Lashana Lynch (as drill instructor Izogie) powering through with pure strength and athletic ability, while the smaller and slighter new recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is all about speed and turning her male opponents’ weight advantage against them. It adds a visceral crunch to combat, every slash, stab, strike, and shot feeling gruellingly real. Unfortunately, though, Dana Stevens’s script is often on shakier ground. For everything it does cleverly or gets right – and that is a lot, as it shapes a complex moment of history into rip-roaring entertainment without feeling too dumbed down – there’s a moment of complete cliché or dumb plotting.

The worst offender is a mid-film twist that is not only pointless but seems to actively work against the message the story has been sending up to that point. It almost threatens to sink The Woman King’s second act, but the cast, Davis and Boyega in particular, elevate this stretch of stodgy writing. Davis is as good as you’d expect here, in total command of both the screen and her troops, and Boyega gets possibly the best scene of his career so far in the moment where Ghezo has to barely suppress his disgust at a visiting Portuguese dignitary. The air genuinely crackles with hatred, as electrifying a moment as any of the more bloody and bombastic stuff.

The Woman King doesn’t do much to surprise you, following all the beats you’d expect from a historical military epic from the montage-y training scenes to a rather superfluous romantic subplot, but it doesn’t need to. From the first frame onwards it’s already blazed its own trail, granting power to Black women in a way mainstream movies very rarely do and presenting a beautiful and nuanced portrayal of historical Africa, sweeping aside the common cliches that so often do such an injustice to this continent. Perhaps most importantly, though, The Woman King understands, much like Prey earlier this year, that giving a young warrior woman a blade attached to a rope and letting them unleash hell on their enemies is about as cool a sight as you can hope to see in cinema.

The Woman King is released in UK cinemas on 4 October.

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