THE WOMAN KING is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. It stars Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega.
In Africa in the early 1800s, the kingdom of Dahomey has come under fire from rival tribes. An all-female warrior force, the Agojie, is fronted by the fearsome Nanisca. Young Nawi, given to King Ghezo as a potential wife when she turns away her suitors, is drafted into training to be part of the Agojie, initially struggling but eventually finding a place with the group. But her loyalty to the order is tested when she meets a Portuguese member of the slave trade with whom she finds herself smitten, amid the ongoing struggles and battles that continue to impact Dahomey. Will Nawi prove herself in battle against increasingly desperate and dangerous intruders?
THE WOMAN KING has no shortage of ambition. With a running time of just over two hours, it’s rooted in the big screen epics of old. But like young Nawi, it’s undisciplined and lacks focus. There are some great performances, gorgeous settings, and intense battle scenes, but there’s just too much going on for the film to reach the epic heights it aims so high for. There’s four hours of content crammed into half that amount of time here, and the end result is underplotted and underdeveloped, feeling like snapshots of what should’ve been two separate films or one four-hour epic. It’s a good film, but there’s too much going on for what little running time we get, and more questions than answers.
I’ll praise THE WOMAN KING for what it does right. The cast, comprised primarily of Black females, is absolutely fantastic. Viola Davis shines as Nanisca, the titular character who finds herself torn between the love of her king and her duties as a warrior on the battlefield. John Boyega as an equally conflicted king fares well with the scenes he’s given. Lashana Lynch does great as Izogie, who helps train the next generation of Agojie soldiers, garnering some of the movie’s best scenes.
But the true standout of the film is young Thuso Mbedu as Nawi, the young girl drafted into training to join the Agojie. Young, conflicted, and unsure of her destiny, she steals every scene she’s in, bringing a mix of innocence, curiosity, and unbridled fury in the scenes that call for it. The title of the film is a bit misleading in that Nawi is the film’s main character. She definitely deserves some Oscar consideration for the humanity she brings to this role.
The African landscapes in the movie look fantastic as well, whether they’re occupied by exotic wildlife or warring African tribes. You’ll love what you see unfold on the big screen as far as the visuals go. From a production standpoint, THE WOMAN KING is a beautiful film.
Unfortunately, despite valiant efforts from cast and crew, the movie never quite reaches the heights it could. The narrative is clumsy; an opening STAR WARS-style “crawl text” sequence trying to explain the current state of Africa at the time the film is set ultimately confuses more than it helps, with far too many names and elements to keep track of; ironically the film would’ve worked better without this. The transitions between so many characters, factions, plot elements and twists, and everything between leaves little breathing room. Too many subplots and characters run wild throughout the story, and it makes one wonder how many of these elements were truly necessary for a film that runs just over two hours.
THE WOMAN KING would’ve worked better as a) a four-hour film with an intermission, b) a limited television series on a streaming service, or c) two separate films running just over two hours. Despite great performances, particularly Mbedu’s Nawi, the end result never quite gels together. I liked THE WOMAN KING, but I wanted to love it. Old-fashion epics require the running times of old-fashioned epics, which this one doesn’t receive. It’ll be a worthy rental when it hits home video, but don’t rush to the theater.