The Woman King Review: Ponders less on its themes and leans more on plot conveniences
While the film is hesitant to dig through the pages of history it aims to throw light on, the powerful performances, and skillful making help keep your eyes on the screen
There are films based on singular historical events like Schindler’s List that rely on a focused sequence of events, following the actions of real-life characters, and then there are films like Apocalypse Now which while being set during the course of a real historical event (Vietnam War in this case) is largely reliant upon fictional characters and fictional events to move their plot. Films of the latter kind have to make sure that the fictional part of their story does not end up overpowering or muddying the actual historical events that they are bolstered upon. Or they might as well go all in to become a reimagining of history like The Inglorious Bastards.
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, John Boyega, and Sheila Atim
And that brings us to the problem with The Woman King, a film that is based on the real events surrounding the African empire of Dahomey and its legendary all-female military unit Agojie. While the film works as a competent work of fiction, the machinations that prop up the fictional part of the story corrode its quality to an extent. The film relies heavily upon one too many coincidences to generate emotional gravitas and the drama required to generate plot momentum is hastily derived from familiar tropes like, ‘the return of the lost child’, ‘the sacrifice of the mentor’, and the rarely used but ever annoying, ‘Someone from the other side who end up having an emotional connection (mostly they just fall in love) with one of the good guys and end up becoming an ally’.
The film does not shy away from the darker parts of history like how Dahomey itself was involved in the slave trade with the European slavers. But it explores the darkness barely enough to stay away from being called out. The ‘good guys’ are quickly showered upon with enough excuses and self-reflections that give way to redemptive measures in the future, all to make sure we don’t see any morally complicated characters on the side of the protagonist and her allies. The desperation to draw a line between the good and the bad characters ultimately rendered this creative effort feel amateur. However, every mixed feeling about the film naturally dissolves when you look at the performances. While some of the supporting actors who play the Agojie soldiers confuse a stiffness for battle-worn grit, you can’t but stand in awe of how wonderfully Gina Prince-Bythewood extracts performance from the rest of her cast. Right from the body language of a legendary warrior, to a vulnerable woman, to an emotional mother, to a conflicted leader, Viola Davis offers such spectacular range in her performance that charges every pixel on screen with energy. While that was expected of an Oscar-winning veteran actor, what takes us by surprise is Thuso Mbedu’s deeply affecting performance as the young Agojie soldier Nawi. At a scene where a crucial secret is revealed, the way Mbedu receives Davis's pain and concern and converts it into utter disbelief followed by dejected beffudlement was wonderful to look at.
Hollywood’s problem of lathering “Hollywood-y acting” to characters from other cultures was thankfully absent in this film. The performances and the body language were refreshing to look at. However, the same could not be said of the writing, which seemed very much Hollywood. And what that means is how formulaic and resolution-hungry the story ends up being towards the end. There was a sense of urgency to wrap up everything neatly towards the end, which is not a problem in and of itself, but doing so through too many plot conveniences seems like a recurring problem you see in generic Hollywood action dramas. And a generic Hollywood action-drama is neither what was sold to us, nor what we expected out of The Woman King. Nevertheless, the film still does what it does best with such earnestness—offering us a compelling watch— that it becomes easy for us to overlook its shortcomings.