The Woman King

The Woman King ★★★

3 stars may seem to be low for Gina Prince-Bythewood's epic drama, The Woman King, but I had very high expectations going into it, based on all the buzz here on Letterboxd and out there in wider internet land. As such, I was hoping for something akin to the very best historical war-dramas. Instead, I got a well acted drama with an occasional battle, but none of the grandeur I'd been hoping for. Perhaps $50 million - the reported price tag - doesn't allow for grandeur, but I can't deny I was looking for more sweeping shots of the African vista, and crane shots rising above two charging armies, and a wow factor, that this film just does not have ...

What it does have, however, are excellent lead performances from Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu. Think African warrior woman who is going to lead her army into battle in 1823, and I bet Davis doesn't automatically come to mind for you. But such is her skill as an actor, by the 30 minute mark of this 135 min film, you totally believe she is capable of such things. Mbedu strongly encapsulates the wide-eyed wonder of the newbie to the army and her journey from there to hardened warrior is completely believable, as she provides the "in" for the audience to learn how this culture works.

The films does a reasonable job of establishing the other side characters, though I'd be lying if I said I felt overly much when any of them meet their fates. I also grew tired of rolling my eyes at the forced love story between Nawi and the half-Brazilian, half-Dahomey guy who tacks along with the slave-traders. It's supposed to provide her character with depth, but it just slows down the pacing of the film.

Another pet peeve of mine is a historical battle film with barely any blood. It's all too sanitised and unrealistic for me to buy into - even if I very much understand it's a dollars based decision to not scare off those who get disturbed by seeing such things on screen.

Apparently most of the characters in the film are fictitious, but the bare bones of the story are largely true - other than the fact that King Ghezo and the Dahomey people were just as into slavery as any other tribe in the region. But there was an army of female warriors and they did help win their independence from the Oyo, so that's probably close enough to explore in a film like this.

3 Bloodless Battles for The Woman King.

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