Saturday 8 October 2022

Reigns down in Africa: "The Woman King"

By all accounts,
The Woman King bears as much relation to actual historical events in 1820s Dahomey as Braveheart did to actual historical events in 13th century Scotland. Initially, it seems above all else an opportunity for producer-star Viola Davis to act even tougher than she did in 2018's Widows, a pre-lockdown awards-season hope that found itself muscled out of the final Oscar line-up altogether. Yet the rise to power of her Nanisca, frontwoman of Dahomey's fearsome all-gal Agojie warriors, turns out to be but one thread in one of the movie mainstream's more ambitious exercises in world-building. The actress-turned-scenarist Maria Bello and critic-turned-screenwriter Dana Stevens have also weaved in court intrigue, with man-king John Boyega shrugging off the distraction of nine wives to combat a threat from a rival tribe, and the training of a wide-eyed young runaway (Thuso Mbedu, breakout star of Barry Jenkins' The Underground Railroad) in the ways of the Agojie. It sounds like at least a bit of a gamble - when was the last major American feature to be set in 1820s Africa? - but this screenplay has been thought through with an eye to providing something to engage everyone: political drama, some kind of history, a coming-of-age narrative, a sense of what a parable of Black self-determination like this might communicate to a 21st century audience - plus semi-regular bouts of action for any boyfriends who consider themselves to have been dragged along reluctantly.

The director is Gina Prince-Bythewood, finally landing a competitive theatrical budget after years of not quite getting the backing her talents merited. (Her work on Netflix's much-streamed actioner The Old Guard seems to have elbowed the moneymen in the ribs; her best film, 2014's sharply observed showbiz romance Beyond the Lights, went underpromoted in the US, and limped direct-to-DVD here.) Prince-Bythewood has a knack of rooting all of those disparate story elements firmly in character, and she's ably assisted by several of the most commanding performers to have emerged over recent years. Sure, sometimes they're stuck with that ever-chewy historical-epic dialogue - some business with soothsaying nuts occasions the line "for the first time, your nuts were right" - but this narrative is a broadly sturdy thing, constructed out of the interactions of sharply defined individuals who forever prove more than the usual movie action figures. If Davis at first comes on as standoffish, that's because Nanisca is fighting her own internal battles, and it clears room for the approachable pairing of Mbedu and Lashana Lynch as the Agojie's head girl; it's more ensemble piece than it is "Viola's Oscar shot", and all the players go full throttle, not just into combat with sticks, knives and spears, but into the turns of Stevens' plot. (It's a big picture that hinges on the world it builds being smaller than you might think.) Maybe the second half plays a tad conventional, with an oft-shirtless mixed-race hunk (Coventry's own Jordan Bolger) helping Mbedu escape the slave ships, and Viola finally going toe-to-toe with the brute responsible for her battle scars. But in its own right, it's a good yarn, involving and stirring and - thanks to DoP Polly Morgan - often beautiful to look at, even in the unpromising context of your local Cineworld. You come away glad the movies got round to telling this story, doubly so that they told it with such verve.

The Woman King is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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