THE WOMAN KING (2022) was a delightful surprise for me. While following many script conventions, it didn’t pander on them, focusing on character, empowerment, and heart in a story that delivers action while being packed with integrity.
In the West African kingdom of Dahomey in 1823 (located in what is now Benin), Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is dragged to the palace by her father and given to the king, as her independent nature made her a poor match for the men courting her. There, she is inducted into the Agojie, an all-female element of the king’s army now preparing for war against the neighboring Oyo Empire, which has been supplied weapons and horses by Portuguese and other slavers. Dahomey has a religion of a male god and a female god, creating a religious precedent for female warriors and at times a female co-king. Nawi discovers what she’s made of in training and in her new relationships with comrades and the commander, General Nanisca (the remarkable Viola Davis). War and the romantic interest of a Portuguese man will put her to the ultimate test, while General Nanisca will have to face her past to become the great leader she is destined to be.
Historically, it’s roughly accurate, as there was an Agojie in the Kingdom of Dahomey, but the Dahomey in the movie is portrayed as rejecting slavery, when in reality they’d become rich on the slave trade and were only forced to stop by the British. I didn’t have a problem with this any more than I had a problem with BRAVEHEART basically inventing Scottish history out of whole cloth. This is clearly an historical epic with a modern sensibility, which is common with movies like these.
I’d mentioned before that the movie otherwise packs a lot of integrity, and I’d like to explain that. Viewers will recognize many conventions of coming-of-age and historical adventure stories, but nothing is annoyingly contrived, and everything rolls out fairly realistically and true to character. The characters are terrific and while many of the character types and travails will feel familiar, they are far more than one note, and the major characters are well developed. This high level of integrity also goes for the film’s themes, as there’s a strong and obvious emphasis on female empowerment, and it’s handled perfectly. Me, I have no problem with a feminist message and in fact applaud it, but as a viewer I want to be shown instead of repeatedly told what to think to cover up for bad scriptwriting. THE WOMAN KING shows us and then trusts us to think for ourselves, which is, in fact, empowering in itself.
Then there’s the action, which is just incredible. A problem with some female (and male too) ass-kickers in action movies is the fight scenes often look highly choreographed with bumbling idiots stumbling into perfect kicks. In THE WOMAN KING, every Agojie even at a glance looks like she will stomp you, and when they’re unleashed in combat, it’s absolutely maniacal while also being believable, as the bad guys look like they’re trying their best. The movie handles that aspect perfectly. And then things all come together for a pretty touching finale that stays focused on the core characters and relationships without anything else forced in to try to satisfy or surprise us.
Overall, THE WOMAN KING is just a terrific, fun, disciplined film with plenty of action and heart. I recommend it.