The Woman King review – Viola Davis leads the line in stirring warrior tale

Davis is the general of an elite team of female fighters, based on the Agojie of 19th-century west Africa, as colonialists seek to exploit tribal conflict

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.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘I can change the way Black women are seen’: Viola Davis on stereotypes, success and playing a warrior
Raised in poverty, the actor has conquered Hollywood, winning an Oscar, an Emmy and two Tony awards. Now she has brought her passion project to the screen – The Woman King’s epic tale of an elite female fighting force

Ellen E Jones

10, Oct, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Tori and Lokita review – clarity of purpose in the Dardennes’ parable of the dispossessed
The new film from double Palme d’Or winners focusses on a pair of young immigrants to Belgium who find themselves working in dangerous situations

Peter Bradshaw

24, May, 2022 @4:58 PM

Article image
Mulan review – Disney's female warrior charges into reality
The live-action remake has blue-chip acting talent and exciting battles, adroitly sidestepping any awkward sexual issues in favour of glossy family entertainment

Peter Bradshaw

03, Sep, 2020 @4:05 PM

Article image
The Woman King review – Viola Davis rules over rousing action epic
Toronto film festival: The Oscar winner leads a strong ensemble of Black women in a robustly entertaining drama about 19th century female warriors

Benjamin Lee in Toronto

10, Sep, 2022 @5:55 PM

Article image
My Policeman review – poignant tale of a love triangle inspired by EM Forster’s own
Michael Grandage’s adaptation of a novel inspired by Forster’s famous ménage à trois conjours a mood of British postwar repression and guilt

Peter Bradshaw

20, Oct, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
The Woman King review – a thunderously cinematic good time
Magnificent Viola Davis heads Gina Prince-Bythewood’s ass-kicking, thought-provoking epic inspired by a real-life all-female army

Wendy Ide

01, Oct, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
The Queen of Spades review – thrillingly addictive tale of gambling and sin
Thorold Dickinson’s 1949 Pushkin adaptation is a glorious melodrama about an ambitious Russian military officer and a countess who sold her soul to the devil in exchange for the secrets of a card game

Peter Bradshaw

21, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Suicide Squad review – eyeball-blitzing supervillain reboot
Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn is a good directorial fit for the humour and freaky violence of DC’s bad-guy jamboree

Peter Bradshaw

28, Jul, 2021 @4:10 PM

Article image
‘It’s been nearly a month and it’s still sold out’: The Woman King takes over Benin’s only cinema
The blockbuster retelling of Benin’s history of elite women warriors has transfixed audiences in the West African country. Our reporter joins the crowds

Joshua Surtees

01, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Elvis review – Baz Luhrmann’s squeaky-clean King is shaking no one up
Incurious yet frantic, Luhrmann’s spangly epic is off-key – and Austin Butler flounders in those blue suede shoes

Peter Bradshaw

22, Jun, 2022 @8:56 AM