A historical epic arrives in theaters. The Woman King follows the Agojie — an all-female group of warriors who protect the West African kingdom of Dahomey. This film is set in the 1820s and stars Viola Davis as General Nanisca, who trains the warriors against their enemies. It’s an epic inspired by the likes of Braveheart and Gladiator, one that ultimately succeeds in telling its story loosely based on actual events. The Woman King is a flawed but well-crafted action drama that allows for the talent in front of and behind the camera to shine.
The Woman King begins with an interesting choice to have an opening crawl, complete with narration of the text, to get the audience caught up on where and when the story takes place. The rest of the movie does an excellent job of building the world surrounding this kingdom. The production design is sublime, taking us back into the 19th century in a civilization that most are unfamiliar with seeing. There is a lot of craft in this movie that makes the experience riveting, as everything feels grounded in an incredible setting.
In many ways, The Woman King is an anomaly. It’s not only a historical epic about women, but it’s a film about black female soldiers. This is a non-franchise film with a $50 million budget and some well-known actors in the industry. You can see how films like Black Panther paved the way for this movie to receive financing and the result mainly works. This movie spends a lot of time building the relationship and dynamics between the characters, which supports a somewhat conventional narrative surrounding a population that needs protection from their enemies and the events that lead to a battle.
The fact that the film is written and directed by women shows a unique perspective unfound in a movie like this. While General Nanisca is a robust and powerful character, she has a vulnerability that she tries to hide. Her character is flawed and investing to watch as she navigates through this story. The Woman King features an ensemble of characters who all have aspects that make them stand out, whether it’s their past or the goal they must accomplish. Everyone in the movie is trying to do better, and while it’s challenging to care about all of them at once, it does a fine job on the page.
The story in The Woman King can sometimes lack urgency, requiring more stakes and momentum to be fully interesting. However, it delivers on its well-choreographed action sequences. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood previously helmed The Old Guard, another film with impressive fights, and she outdoes herself with this movie. The fight sequences are kinetic, with real stuntwork and choreography that exceptionally display the prowess on screen. Everything culminates in a large-scale battle sequence between two opposing forces, which is well-directed and filled with spectacle, but somewhat emotionally barren.
Unfortunately, the pacing can be weak. After the big battle, you would think the credits are about to roll, but this isn’t the case. The film goes on much longer than its natural conclusion, even squeezing in another action sequence right after. As a result, the film feels much longer than it should. It also commits the same “crime” as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, where it feels as if it has many endings. Every time you think it is about to end, it simply keeps going.
But the main selling point of The Woman King is its performances, with Davis and John Boyega standing out as especially phenomenal in this film. Davis vanishes into another character in her expansive career and the ensemble cast meets her every step of the way. The movie may lack a single adversary for the characters to take on, and it could have used a stronger script, but there are some powerful moments of filmmaking in this movie. The costume design is sublime, the craft is excellent, and there is just enough about this movie that makes it worth watching.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 6 equates to “Decent.” It fails to reach its full potential and is a run-of-the-mill experience.
Disclosure: The critic attended a press screening for ComingSoon’s The Woman King review.