Viola Davis kills in African war epic

Movie review

Running time: 126 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sequences of heavy violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, short language and partial nudity). In theaters September 16.

TORONTO – “The Woman King” marks a truce between two long-time enemies: action and drama.

During the Viola Davis-directed film, which premiered Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, we’re transported back to the glory days of the 1980s and ’90s, when big budgets, fight scenes, romance and drama were routinely mixed into a crowd-pleasing package.

What a refreshing break from what usually defines an epic these days – mixing Ant-Man and the Hulk.

In the highly entertaining “Woman King,” Davis plays Nanisca, a veteran general of an all-female force called Agojie in the 19th-century African kingdom of Dahomey. They were a real and fascinating part of history.

(Their actual fights probably didn’t look so much like “Matrix” back then, but hooray for Hollywood.)

Dahomey is at war with the Oyo Empire, who have captured innocents and sold them into slavery. Nanisca won’t take this and is aided in her anger by her badass lieutenants Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim, a fabulous British stage actress who deserves greater recognition).

The film centers on a new group of recruits who arrive at the group’s palace training ground – Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), whose father sent her away after she refused to marry a suitor; Ode (Adrienne Warren), a prisoner who gets a chance to train; and Fumbe (Masali Baduza), a girl rescued from the slave trade.

All three are memorable, but Mbedu in particular, who hides a stealthy Arya Stark killer instinct behind a cute exterior.

Nanisca by Viola Davis leads a force "The Woman King."
Viola Davis’ Nanisca leads a formidable force in The Woman King.
Courtesy of TIFF

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood gives us good old fashioned training sequences like “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid”. The women’s time at camp is also reminiscent of “Mulan,” but no one here sings “Be A Man.” However, there are some fun sword-wielding dance sequences in front of the king (John Boyega).

Now focused and ready for battle, the cast (well, their stunt doubles anyway) enact some of the best action scenes of the year. They wake you up relentlessly and yet gracefully and grab you by the collar. They stack corpses like Davis Oscar nods.

Prince-Bythewood is one of the few directors out there that consistently produces solid action films. Their last film, The Old Guard, for Netflix was head and shoulders above anything the Russo brothers could deliver to the streamer. She has a proven flair for fusing emotion with fireworks.

Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, a new recruit into the Agojie.
Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, a new recruit into the Agojie.
©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Ever

“King” does not always rule.

I wasn’t convinced by a One Life To Live twist with Nanisca. The trick thread was certainly put there to give more contour to the character and to exploit Davis’ deep well of emotion. That’s great. The step still seems too obvious and unnecessary.

An air of romance also develops between Nawi and a guilt-ridden Brazilian slave trader named Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose mother is from Dahomey and whose father is white. He pops up here and there, and we get the impression the production thinks giving the love story too much screen time might hurt the girl power vibe. But then why introduce it at all?

However, these are quibbles in a film that, by and large, works very well.

Davis, by the way, delivers the kind of powerful, stoic, tortured performance we’ve come to expect from her after triumphant turns on “Doubt,” “Fences,” and “How To Get Away With Murder.” But despite the title and a rousing St. Crispin’s Day-esque “Henry V” speech, “Woman King” is an ensemble effort through and through.

They are “woman,” hear them roar.

https://nypost.com/2022/09/10/the-woman-king-review-viola-davis-kills-in-african-war-epic/ Viola Davis kills in African war epic

Emma Bowman

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