TIFF 2022: THE WOMAN KING Amazingly Carves Out Its Place Among Historical Epics
Historical films are usually epic in scale and feature a larger-than-life story told through an action lens. The Woman King is no different while being completely revolutionary in terms of its scale and tone. The Gina Prince-Blythwood-directed film packs a hefty punch, while also carrying a lot of emotional weight. It can easily become an instant classic, in the same company as the likes of Gladiator and Braveheart. But make no mistake, there is no comparing The Woman King to those films. The movie stands on its own, adding new layers and ideas to the genre it’s set in. Keep reading for my The Woman King review, straight out of TIFF ’22.
What Is The Woman King Review All About?
The Woman King is about a historical kingdom in West Africa, the Dahomey. The film focuses on the warrior women of this kingdom who act as the king’s guard, called the Agojie. The story follows a shift in the status quo of this nation, as Europeans make their way to the continent, while a larger force threatens Dahomey. The political motivations of outsiders, along with a looming need to change their ways in the face of an evolving new world, requires Dahomey to change and evolve themselves. The challenges in their path come from multiple fronts, and facing them head-on is the Agojie, and their fearless leader, Nanisca.
While this is the political crux of the movie, it’s set against more personal storylines for the women of the Agojie. The major protagonists of the film are these women warriors, whose loyalty is only to the king and his kingdom. It should. The Agojie were the real-life inspiration for the Dora Milaje, as featured in Black Panther comic books and movies. Nanisca (Viola Davis) is the leader of these warriors, and the trusted advisor of King Ghezo (John Boyega). The Woman King‘s story begins with a new batch of women warriors training to become part of the Agojie, and all that comes with it.
The Woman King Review Is Spoiler-Free
One of the more impressive aspects of The Woman King is how the narrative and story feel fresh and wholly original. Many male-centric historical action movies have a formulaic approach to love, revenge, honour and so on. But The Woman King focuses on other plot beats entirely. Even though there is still enough of an emotional connection throughout to make the audience invest in and become enamoured with these characters. Writers Maria Bello and Dana Stevens create a story that has the larger story of the Dahomey kingdom, slavery, European invasion and more in mind; while also giving ample screen time to the individuals within these stories, and their journeys, trauma and growth.
The Woman King review would be remiss not to discuss how impressive the film’s narrative is, especially balanced with the breathtaking action set pieces. While there are multiple subplots at play, director Gina Prince-Blythwood handles them impeccably. No storyline takes away from the larger picture, while not also being too interconnected like the third act of a Seinfeld episode. The characters have to deal with their individual arcs while coming together for the final act in an organic way. And it’s brilliant!
Bringing Something New To The Historical Epic
The Woman King is unlike any other movie set in this genre. The action set pieces are unique and free of any typical blockbuster homogenization that most of these epics are subject to. Most of the fight sequences are brutal hand-to-hand combat with oversized machetes and other blades. It’s brutal, and violent, while not being so gratuitous that runs the risk of turning off audiences. Prince-Blythewood has previously shown off her ability to handle awesome action sequences in The Old Guard. In The Woman King, she builds on that skill set even more with some amazingly choreographed sequences that are genuinely jaw-dropping.
That is also in no small part due to cinematographer Polly Morgan’s amazing work. While many of these insane action scenes occur at night, Prince-Blythewood, together with Morgan takes enough care to light those scenes well enough that I was never once hard-pressed to follow the visuals. Especially given the criticism lately of massive studio films being ‘too dark’. Literally. Even away from the action, the framing of certain shots of The Woman King are breathtaking. The establishing and wide shots of the scenery are almost like works of art. Even more so when she fills the frame with the amazing star cast of the movie.
The Woman King Review Praises The Star Cast
Viola Davis as the lead character of The Woman King is unrecognizable! In an entirely physical role, which is also incredibly nuanced. Davis here is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before from the Oscar-winning actress. Her intense physicality rivals that of any male action superstar right now. But even despite that, Davis infuses a lot of vulnerability into Nanisca as well, without it ever seeming out of place.
Viola Davis is supported by the main cast of women who are just as incredible. Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel) is the stand out to me, as an archetype of the veteran drill sergeant who takes to a new recruit and forms a special bond. Lynch is amazing in the role of a devil-may-care veteran Agojie, who bends rules to her will while being one of Nanisca’s fiercest warriors. Then there is Shiela Atim (Dr. Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness) who plays Amenza, Nansica’s confident and closest friend. She turns in a brilliant performance as Nansica’s second in command, and the one who guides the leader.
But the breakout star of The Woman King review is Thuso Mdebu, who plays Nawi, the new recruit of the Agojie. It’s through her training and learning of the Agojie’s ways that the story moves forward. She is the Harry Potter of this world. Mdebu is insanely talented and shows stunning range. Despite sharing screen space with these veteran actors, she stands out and is memorable in every scene. John Boyega turns in a great supporting performance as King Ghezo, holding his own, but never stealing the spotlight from the others.
The Woman King Review Conclusion
The Woman King is a must-watch. It’s an epic blockbuster unlike any other before it. From its amazing framing and visuals to its tightly directed story, it’s a riveting experience from beginning to end. It’s visceral, raw and groundbreaking in a lot of ways. The Woman King is a testament to the power of well-written women characters, in any genre, especially one that was traditionally occupied by toxic masculinity.
The Woman King premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2022.
The film releases on September 16, 2022.
Did you get a chance to check out The Woman King at the Toronto International Film Festival? And if not, are you excited for this new original female-led historical action movie? Let me know in the comments below, or reach out to me on Twitter @theshahshahid.