Director Gina Prince-Bythewood plants the bold flags of storytelling and myth-making with this stirring period action movie, inspired by the 19th-century west African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) and its Agojie, an Amazon brigade of female warriors tougher and more feared than any men: somewhere between a special forces unit and a praetorian guard for the king.
Viola Davis plays Nanisca, the battle-scarred general of the Agojie: tough, disciplined and hyperalert for any sign of attack from their old enemy, the Oyo empire, and worried that the new king Ghezo (John Boyega), who has deposed his brother in a coup, is not sufficiently focused on these things. Nanisca’s loyal lieutenants are Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim) but she nonetheless finds herself strangely preoccupied by a new hothead recruit, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who has been effectively dumped on the military by an angry father on account of her resistance to marriage. As two Brazilian aristocrat slavers come to their country, eager to exploit the warring factions who each wish to sell off their prisoners of war into slavery, Nawi is to come of age as a warrior and make a terrible discovery about her past.
The Woman King is an interestingly old-fashioned film, with hints of Gladiator and Braveheart, although there is something bracingly contemporary in Prince-Bythewood and her screenwriters Maria Bello and Dana Stevens tackling the way tribal warfare, insidiously encouraged by the imperialists, created the market forces for slavery – although Ghezo is now considering making the big business-model move from slavery to palm oil, which is lucrative and plentiful. This is a big, bold picture with the vivid presences of Davis, Lynch, Atim and Mbedu giving it some real voltage. I sometimes wondered if there wasn’t room for a more potent villain here, someone worthy to face off dramatically with the charismatic Davis: Boyega’s Ghezo is supposed to be flawed but there was perhaps room for a real antagonist to strike more sparks. Even so, this is a grand spectacle with vivid and theatrical performances.
• The Woman King is released on 4 October in cinemas.