This rampaging, clattering action flick — defiantly old-school in some ways, ground-breaking in others — asks its audience to take more than a few leaps of faith. Hearing that Gina Prince-Bythewood has set her film in the west African kingdom of Dahomey during the early 19th century, one might reasonably expect satisfying amounts of dirt, viscera and mangled bodies. As it happens, the film is closer in appearance to an Ivanhoe of the 1950s than, say, Ridley Scott’s recent The Last Duel. Every costume is neat and well-ironed. Nobody’s hair is out of place. Given the setting, a better comparison is, perhaps, with the Wakanda of Black Panther. You will learn something of Agojie, the all-woman Dahomean army, from The Woman King, but this is largely popcorn-friendly fantasy pitched at maximum volume.
More concerning to historians has been the softening of the Agojie’s role in the slave trade and the glamorising of certain Portuguese colonists. In one of The Woman King’s less convincing moments, fearsome general Nanisca (Viola Davis) — briefly coming across more as distaff Al Gore than distaff George Patton — proposes cultivating palm oil rather than raiding slaves. In reality this less lucrative alternative was rapidly dropped. The Portuguese are bad, but dishy bad.
It is worth getting all this out of the way before confirming that The Woman King is an absolute riot from beginning to end. Hollywood has been sweetening, cleansing and mythologising white history for well over a century. So it is about time that it had a crack at doing the same for black stories.
This version has Nanisca freeing Dahomean sisters abducted as slaves by the neighbouring Oyo Empire. Not surprisingly this leads to some tension between the nations, and King Ghezo of Dahomey — allowed just enough pompous swagger by John Boyega — invites Nanisca to gear the Agolie into martial preparedness. You will fast run out of fingers as you count off the narrative conventions observed. Fans of The Dirty Dozen will enjoy the training sequence that sees Nanisca show rookies (as they are not, thank heavens, called) the right way to chop off an enemy’s head. The South African Thuso Mbedu, star of The Underground Railroad, playing a young recruit named Nawi, manages to shake off a silly Joseph Campbell-style hero myth — you’ll guess which one soon enough — to confirm her status as rising star. Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim, two celebrated British actors, are equally strong in a bracingly international cast.
It hardly needs to be said that The Woman King rides on the never-mightier shoulders of Viola Davis. With cinema in its current straitened condition, it is hard to compare her status with that of any earlier star, but the endlessly charismatic, terrifyingly serious actor appears to occupy a space unique in cinema history. She is at home anywhere. The film — whatever it may be — always wakes up when she enters the frame. Shot in the heroic style of a John Ford veteran, she never loses containment even when wielding machetes while framed by fire.
Hard though it may be to credit, $50 million is not a huge budget for such a production. Prince-Bythewood, who has proved her versatility with The Secret Life of Bees and The Old Guard, would surely have liked a few more sweeping pans of enormously massed armies, but the thrilling rhythms of the hand-to-hand combat more than make up for the slightly limited scale. Mindful of its certification — a 15A here — the filmmakers shed as much blood, but no more, than you would have expected from that mid-century Ivanhoe. The end result is a novel, representation-stretching enterprise that, paradoxically, plays like the “sort of film they don’t make any more”.