Gina Prince-Bythewood | 2hr 14min
One might almost think while watching The Woman King that they are revisiting the 1990s or 2000s cinema culture where such films as Braveheart and Gladiator dominated the box office and awards seasons. Perhaps what separates the response to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s grand, historical epic from its predecessors does not so much lie in the artistry as it does the cultural shift away from the genre, making it look increasingly unlikely that this film will take hold of audiences in the same way. This should not be considered a reason to write it off though – the setting of West Africa’s Dahomey Kingdom in the early 19th century offers her story a beautifully rich backdrop of sweeping battles and ancient rituals, allowing it to narrow in on the tribe’s all-female warrior unit, the Agojie. Though this form of storytelling carries on classical narrative traditions, Prince-Bythewood updates it with a lens far more sensitive to historical female perspectives, interrogating the familial bonds that form among these warriors and their mentors.
For a director who has previously subjugated cinematic style to deeply personal subject matter, it is refreshing to see Prince-Bythewood integrate the two so seamlessly here, using the culture of the Agojie warriors as a springboard into epic set pieces pitting Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, and Lashana Lynch among others against the cruel Oyo Empire. Davis especially asserts herself as a sturdy presence in the role of General Nanisca, drawing a fierce anger from her past trauma as she throws her body into combat with Oyo men, though in the rapport she builds with Mbedu, we find another actress with the screen presence to match her beat for beat. Capitalising on her success in Barry Jenkins’ epic miniseries The Underground Railroad, Mbedu brings a vibrant physicality to orphaned warrior Nawi, who passionately joins the Agojie women in their gruelling training.
In the dusty courtyards where they spar, extras are staged across the frame’s entire depth of field, building a world that feels just as alive beyond the main characters as it does within their immediate storylines. There is also a tangibility to the red clay and coarse textiles of the Dahomey tribe’s visual design, especially within the walls of King Ghezo’s palace where fires flicker against walls and carry through through the earthy warmth of Prince-Bythewood’s sunlit landscapes, though the full scale of her achievement here is not felt until her epic battle scenes. As guns and swords are drawn on both sides and the Agojie warriors’ ululating war cry echoes out across the sandy terrain, we are lifted into the air with majestic crane shots, awed by the ferocious wave of women charging towards either defeat or victory. Prince-Bythewood’s veneration of classical filmmaking pays off in these gorgeously executed set pieces, stripping back the CGI to a minimum and letting them breathe with a marvellous, tactile practicality.
It isn’t terribly surprising to see the two women at the centre of this story, Nanisca and Nawi, move along parallel character arcs towards positions of historical greatness, but bringing emotional depth to these journeys is the mother-daughter connection that forms between the two, complete with moments of rebellion, reprimand, and support. Just as Nanisca embraces her student’s independence and strategic thinking, so too is Nawi inspired by her mentor’s fortitude and physical capability, filling holes in each other’s lives that Prince-Bythewood probes in a moving yet unexpectedly twisty subplot. The story of The Woman King rests on the relationships formed between its women, building each other up through bonds far tighter than anyone could guess, and within this historical setting of emboldened African warriors and awe-inspiring battles, these sisterly and motherly dynamics feel viscerally alive.
The Woman King is currently playing in theatres.