Whenever the course of historical events translate to screen adaptation, its goal to sneak up on the viewer lends to highly mixed results. Place the viewer directly in front of the conflict without even a single beat to establish its perspective or priorities, the mood might be compromised. Therein falls the one fragile thread hindering what is otherwise an exceptional, if not also triumphant whopper of a war film at the hands of director Gina Prince-Blythewood. Her newest feature, The Woman King relishes well in its real-world action drama whiplash, akin to the beauty of Braveheart, the carnage of Gladiator, or the unity of Black Panther. A dense in volume, trial-heavy adventure playing quick, high on adrenaline, but lost on a determinable starting point. The latter may be the lone handicap with this epic; look past it, look with full eyes, and that cinematic enrichment will be completely front and center.
To all five senses, Woman King is a royal champion. A mammoth film dropping a lens on the world like we haven’t witnessed on screen in a nonspecific eternity, let alone with a girlboss cast. And one ensconced in real-world myth with a confident stride. Prince-Blythewood turns the clock back to 1823. Around that time, residents in the West African kingdom of Dahomey were troubled by an ongoing battle for territorial dominance. Their enemy, the Oyo, strive to claim their rightful land, rich in reserves of palm oil, supported by a handshake agreement with neighboring conquistadors with experience in the slave trade.
To hopefully gain an upper hand, King Ghezo (John Boyega) spearheads a new form of retaliation in the Agojie, a group of female warriors anchored by General Nanisca (Viola Davis). In her role, she does not mince words or actions. She needs refinement, strength, and heuristic sharpness out of her comrades, all of them brash though eager to play a role. Among them, Izogie (Lashawna Lynch), Ameza (Sheila Atim), Ode (Adrienne Warren), and overenthusiastic Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). Nanisca will achieve just that, while paving a different path below her king’s olive-branch influence with the slavers. Call it an ethical tightrope act, one whose loyalties normally fall with the community. Here, cleverly enough, it’s not as simplistic.
Prince-Blythewood does not settle for aiming for a straightforward pathway with this affair of greed, corruption and bravery. Instead, it’s all a stacked staircase of ideas, building in vigor with each play. The largest issue is once again, how it begins, turning into how its carryover in theme structure can sustain itself. Co-writers Maria Bello (The Water Man) and Dana Stevens (Fatherhood) work in spades to navigate the aftereffects of a near-imperishable script layout. Even their best efforts cannot prevent brief wobbles to spring up. Transitioning out of the violent, to the intimate and character-driven, then back again, is far from seamless. One might be left wondering on just when it happens, only to have Nanisca tighten the lens with her allies.
It could be what’s taking place below her command that offers a welcome, sluggish shift in perspective. Equal concentration is placed on the enemy threat, and their complex hierarchy, topped by Malik (Jordan Bolger) and Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), maintaining the falsity of a beneficial trade system, when it’s all for personal profiteering. The pair hide it well, working closely with the Oyo. Further down, a romantic angle brews between Nawi and Malik, formerly a Dahomey resident, adding a needless stack to the already slanted buildup of grandiose anarchy.
All those awkward beats feigning improper relationships, amicable or deceptive, scatter about just enough to not skew Prince-Blythewood’s attention away from what’s most valuable. To her, it’s the virtue of conquest, impacted greatly by collective flaws. Boyega and Tiffin expertly wade those waters on intersecting currents, iron fist heavy on slow community eradication. The pair exude sharp-eyed villainy, concealing their evil mindsets with a cool demeanor. Only Davis can slice through any manner of shrewd weakness with an assertive dominance befitting of an army player. Owning her title so effusively with a wary soul, she uses past tension as fuel, Nanisca coming to terms with difficulties from her younger days on top of merely leading with her head. Many different facets culminate in a winning performance. The type to leave lasting ripples for Lynch and newcomer Mbedu to elevate their own portrayals. The two carry forth with a symbolic sisterhood, linked by courage, and energized with the compassion required to protect seriously.
Prince-Blythewood possesses the fullest of hearts as a captain for empowering classical heroics. Not the “classical literature” variety, thankfully. Its finely choreographed battle sequences would feel out of place if it went too Shakespeare. It leans very Gibson-esque, if not also echoing the scale of Robert Wise or David Lean on their better days. Eye-popping, yet still self-contained, as Terence Blanchard’s (Da 5 Bloods) bombastic instrumentation, or Polly Morgan’s (Where the Crawdads Sing) sweeping camera acrobatics could attest.
Many an extra mile is travelled to avoid standard formula, invoke further realism to real-life history, and effectively place the viewer as if they are active participants. And that is mostly successful throughout The Woman King’s span, if one is willing to look beyond its near-scrapes with a shaky ground on the page. I probably couldn’t, dizzied by the level of steps mounting a spiraling staircase to its sanguinary finale. At its most productive, there was the equivalent of a million moving parts in action. The mind may overwhelm at points by its scope. But focus is never completely absent in this cinematic behemoth iconizing obscure history to an inclusive perspective worth revisiting. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
The Woman King opens September 16, previews at 3PM September 15; rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity; 135 minutes.