In The Woman King, the year is 1823 and in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, General Nanisca leads an all-female group of warriors on behalf of King Ghezo. These women – known as the Agojie – were once slaves, held captive by the Oyo Empire, but they are now protectors of their kingdom, who are loyal to both their King, and General Nanisca.
Among the warriors is Nawi – a new recruit who was given to the Agojie by her father, after he repeatedly failed to marry her off. Nawi is a strong-willed young girl, who has ambitions to become a bold warrior in her own right, but she struggles to follow orders, causing clashes with her General.
Meanwhile, General Nanisca has bigger issues on her mind and is more concerned with getting revenge against General Oba Ade – leader of the Oyo Empire. Oba Ade attacked and raped Nanisca when she was younger, and profits from slavery in West Africa, so seeing him removed from power (and killed) is all that she can think about.
As Nanisca works toward her goal, she finds herself growing closer to Nawi, due to an unexpected connection they share. But can these two warriors, along with the rest of the Agojie, find a way to bring down Oba Ade and ensure greater freedoms for their people?
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King stars Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, and John Boyega. The movie is a historical action-drama, filled with excellent fight sequences, a number of emotive scenes, and some outstanding performances, including a knock-out turn from Davis.
And it is here where I will begin this review for The Woman King, because of all the film’s positives – of which there are many – the most obvious one to highlight is Viola Davis, who is magnificent in this picture, playing the role of General Nanisca. Not only does she command the screen throughout, but she is very much the heart and soul of the movie.
As Nanisca, Davis is brave, bold, and never less than fierce. She plays the character as unwavering, unapologetic, unmatched, and unbelievably cool.
When she is called upon to perform the film’s action sequences, Davis is a true powerhouse. Not only does she look like an action star, making Nanisca a cross between King T’Challa and Xena: Warrior Princess, she also sells the heck out every thrust, every punch, and every ass-kicking, sword-jabbing moment.
Then on top of what she offers up physically, Davis has the acting chops to ensure Nanisca is a fully fleshed out character both mentally and spiritually too. This isn’t a case of all style and no substance, this is a character who needs to be more than just muscle, and Davis certainly delivers on this front, serving up a nuanced performance.
But this isn’t just Davis’ movie, the film also contains excellent performances from John Boyega as King Ghezo, Lashana Lynch as Nanisca’s right-hand woman, Izogie, and Thuso Mbedu as Nawi. Mbedu in particular is very strong in this picture, and she works alongside Davis perfectly.
Overall, this film has a very good cast. So much so, that I need to chuck some praise in the direction of casting director Aisha Coley.
Casting directors never get the acknowledgement they deserve, so I’m taking a moment to ‘big up’ Coley, because her work here does not go unnoticed. Even if this film had fallen apart in the story department, the sets, or the soundtrack, then it would still have an ace up its sleeve in terms of its casting.
All the main players are excellent, and this requires a casting director who has the knowledge and foresight to put this ensemble together. So, credit where credit is due.
Moving away from the casting, and with regards to the story, this film has an engaging narrative, which knows how to balance action and drama. The script gives all its actors something to do, and knows exactly when to inject a bit of emotion into the story, or when to make way for a fight sequence or two.
And speaking of the fight sequences, the battle choreography is superb. There’s an old school feel to this picture, with clanging weapons, some blood and sweat, and plenty of in-camera action, rather than an over reliance on CGI.
Chuck in some fine costuming, great scenery, and a solid score, and The Woman King ticks all the right boxes. There is a general feeling that everything has been put together with attention to detail and I am very much here for it.
In an age of super hero movies and low-rent streaming titles, it is becoming increasingly rare to see epic period pictures like this one, which feel as if they have some weight to them; but hey, here we are, so please do enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed every minute of The Woman King, and will no doubt watch it again in the not-too distant future (when I’m not reviewing countless other films).
Should you wish to check out The Woman King for yourself, the movie is still on general release in UK cinemas. The film will arrive on video-on-demand platforms shortly.