The Woman King, review: a thunderous slice of cinematic myth-making

Viola Davis in The Woman King - Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures
Viola Davis in The Woman King - Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures

It may not shock anyone to know that the West African kingdom of Dahomey, inside present-day Benin, did not, in 1823, precisely resemble the milieu so conjured in The Woman King – a thunderous slice of cinematic myth-making that cleaves less to historical fact than big-screen formulae.

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic drama springs off the success of Black Panther and roars into action: it’s every bit as propulsive, as detailed, as richly imagined. It’s fast, and it’s loose, and it totally works.

In its back pocket is something part-way between reality and legend, about Dahomey’s all-female warrior unit, the Agojie. In documented fact, this elite, machete-wielding militia had a more complex role in the Atlantic slave trade than Dana Stevens’ script is willing to delve into. It’s a rousing, simplified rewrite. You can take it, too, as an invitation to learn all the granular context afterwards. For the two-and-a-bit hours when you’re actually experiencing their tale on screen, it’s only these Agojie you’ll be troubled about.

Among all the film’s crackerjack elements – the fight choreography, Terence Blanchard’s muscular if pan-African score, the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated costumes – it’s shrewd casting that really knits it together. Viola Davis, as the unit’s general Nanisca, settles in for an expert simmer, with that stony-faced combination of grievance and fatigue she can meld so well. Her relationship with tribal ruler King Ghezo (a suitably majestic John Boyega) is one of respectful deference in both directions.

Nanisca has escaped captivity and channelled rape trauma into setting free every woman she can find from the clutches of rival tribes, then moulding them by training into the Agojie way, with the help of mistress-at-arms Izogie (a ferocious, immensely entertaining Lashana Lynch), and the statuesque Amenza, played with sober poise by Sheila Atim.

The most fiery newcomer is teenager Nawi (the astonishingly 31-year-old Thuso Mbedu), who has refused an arranged marriage and therefore been marked out as a virgin warrior; she has a scar, too, which links her to Nanisca in long-suppressed ways. The film has a sure storytelling hand with these subplots, and an actress of proven excellence in Mbedu (The Underground Railroad), whose scenes with both Davis and Lynch are dramatically riveting. The script can be sketchy elsewhere, but not when it’s forging these core relationships.

Prince-Bythewood, whose fourth feature this is, improves no end on the jumpy comic-book action of her 2020 Netflix beat-’em-up The Old Guard: when these Agojie storm in to settle scores with their keening battle cries, like avenging furies, it’s not just the blood and thunder of the set pieces but their unexpectedly balletic grace notes that sweep you along. You can expect to hear the true history of this tribe re-litigated throughout awards season, but however many slings and arrows come at it, The Woman King will have its doughty defenders, and it definitely has guts.

15 cert, 135 mins. In cinemas now