TIFF REVIEW – ‘The Woman King’ is equally a thrilling historical epic and an intimate character study

A new film starring the ever-reliable Viola Davis is always cause for celebration (and awards season murmurs). And, as expected, she’s delivered the goods yet again with another commanding performance in the rousing crowd-pleaser The Woman King. Get ready to hear Davis’ name a lot this season. She’s coming for her fifth Oscar nomination.

An old-fashioned blockbuster in the same wheelhouse as films like Gladiator, Spartacus, and Braveheart, The Woman King stands taller by virtue of offering a Black female-led narrative we simply haven’t seen before. Equally a thrilling historical epic and an intimate character study, it’s both familiar and fresh with a superb ensemble cast and stellar production values.

Set in the West African nation of Dahomey in the 1820s, The Woman King introduces us to the Agojie, a battalion of all-female warriors who have dedicated their lives to protecting King Ghezo (John Boyega) and their homeland. Led by the respected General Nanisca (Davis), the Agojie are a fierce and ferocious force to be reckoned with.

Nanisca is tasked with overseeing the training of a group of new recruits including head-strong teenager Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who was donated to the Agojie by her father after refusing to marry a string of potential older suitors. While she initially presents with a tempestuous attitude and a penchant for disobeying orders, Nawi soon impresses Nanisca’s second-in-command Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and may stand as the future of the Agojie.

As the most respected woman in the kingdom, Nanisca is also on hand to provide her wisdom to the King as he faces a potential all-out war with the Oyo Empire unless he continues to sell his people to their slave trade. While the practice has helped make Dahomey wealthy, Nanisca believes now is the time Ghezo should reject this outdated and cruel practice and finally fight back.

Played with furious energy by Davis, Nanisca is a new action heroine for the ages. It’s a physically demanding performance that Davis handles with aplomb. She dominates the action sequences but is equally imposing out of combat with a gaze that could burn the flesh right off your face. Davis brings such authority to a character who’s harbouring deep-seated pain that slowly unfurls as she begins to bond with Nawi in unexpected ways.

It’s in these quieter moments that Davis’ performance really excels, as she digs into the psyche of a woman known for her killer skills and endless intelligence. There’s tragedy in Nanisca’s past, offering Davis the chance to reveal the complex layers of a warrior tortured by the sacrifices she’s made in the name of duty. In a career of stellar work, Davis continues to prove why she’s one of the greatest of all time.

However, despite its title, this is far from a one-woman show. One could even argue Mbedu is Davis’ co-lead, as there’s equal focus on Nawi in Dana Stevens‘ stellar screenplay. In the hands of a lesser performer, the somewhat-bratty Nawi could be a grating character. But Mbedu finds the pathos in an empathetic turn as a young woman who refuses to bow to societal pressure and longs to become a fierce warrior like those around her. Watching her evolution is simply marvellous.

But it’s Lynch who proves to be the real scene-stealer, which should come as no surprise after her impressive work in films like No Time to Die and Captain Marvel. Izogie occasionally injects some much-needed levity into proceedings, while still remaining an intense soldier who delights in punishing anyone who gets in her way. Despite initially seeming stoic and forbearing, she takes Nawi under her wing and becomes the guiding force in her transformation. Consider Lynch a potential awards player this season alongside Davis.

If you appreciated her underrated work on 2020’s The Old Guard, you’d be well aware director Gina Prince-Bythewood knows how to craft a thrilling action set piece. That’s firming on display again in The Woman King with a series of impeccably styled battle scenes that demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The fight choreography is fast and wild, all captured by Polly Morgan‘s sweeping cinematography that also wisely takes in the breathtaking surroundings of the stunning South African backdrop.

Thankfully, Prince-Bythewood doesn’t merely rest on just offering up lashings of action. She’s as keenly interested in delving into her characters and the sisterhood that tightly binds them. This is an ensemble piece and each role is given weighty focus so that an audience actually gives a damn about each of these women. It’s hard not to stand and cheer when they’re succeeding and shed a tear when tragedy strikes.

There will likely be those who squabble over the true accuracy of The Woman King, but that’s something all big screen historical dramas face, and liberties with the truth must be taken in the name of artistic license. It’s easier to just marvel at this mighty group of Black women, whether their inspiring exploits really occurred or not.

While The Woman King may follow a familiar structure of historical epics of the past, it’s offered from a new perspective that’s long overdue. This is an action blockbuster that keenly understands success only comes when the narrative has character at its forefront. It also helps to have actors like Davis, Mbedu, and Lynch injecting gravitas at every turn. An exhilarating spectacle that’s as entertaining as it is stirring, this is one of the best times you’ll have in a cinema this year.

Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, John Boyega
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Producers: Cathy Schulman, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Maria Bello
Screenplay: Dana Stevens
Cinematography: Polly Morgan
Production Design: Akin McKenzie
Costume Design: Gersha Phillips
Music: Terence Blanchard
Editor: Terilyn Shropshire
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Date: 16th September 2022 (US), 27th October 2022 (Australia)