I am neither oblivious nor immune to the pleasure to be had in watching Viola Davis absolutely kick ass on screen. Usually that description is more metaphorical, referring to her ability to take charge of a dramatic scene and command it like Patton. That The Woman King overcomes its significant flaws to serve as rousing, darkly challenging entertainment is largely due to the way the film takes Davis’s talent for the tussle and makes it more literal. Davis plays General Nanisca, the leader of an all-woman army that serves the African nation-state of Dahomey in the early nineteenth century. Wielding giant blades and charging into battle against their adversaries from the Oyo Empire, Davis brings her usual powerhouse intensity and wells of inner life to her character, even as she strides through the grandiose spectacle of it all like it’s her own Gladiator, Braveheart, The Northman, and eight seasons of Game of Thrones all in one. It’s a thrill to watch her growl and grind through a star-turn part that has too often been denied actresses of her caliber, not to mention skin color.
Davis’s isn’t the only performance that elevates The Woman King. There are nifty turns by Thuso Mbedu, as a headstrong new charge in the band of warriors, and John Boyega, relentlessly amusing as the comfortably unperturbed sovereign of Dahomey. Best of all is Lashana Lynch, playing one of the other leaders within the skirmish-scarred group. She strides through the role a deft, muscular mix of tightly packed charisma and character work so bold and vibrant that she sometimes seems close to winking at the camera, or at least swinging here arm around the entire audience and offering a convivial swig of whiskey. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood brings welcome attention and appreciation to these fiercely alive performances, flickering into being some of same grand camaraderie central to her preceding film, The Old Guard. She understands that character development doesn’t slow down the action. Indeed, it enhances it.
Prince-Bythewood does well by the action, too. She brings both clarity and showmanship to the proceedings, taking obvious delight in staging moments for maximum visual impact. She’s not confined by her imagination, only the impositions of the ratings board. Even as there’s brutality aplenty onscreen, most memorably the use of fingernails manicured into weaponry, there’s conspicuously little blood. The corporate desire for a PG-13 rating is apparent from time to time, usually to the point of distraction.
The main issue with The Woman King, though, is the screenplay. Credited to Maria Bello and Dana Stevens for the story and to Stevens alone for the screenplay itself, the story acknowledges moral complexities and difficulties without really doing to work to grapple with them. Based ever so lightly on real history, the screenplay addresses that the wealth and power of Dahomey was built on turning over their kinsmen to the slave trade, but it can’t do much better than platitudes and debate-class speechifying in dealing with this grim truth. Unlike its central character, The Woman King can’t quite bear its own harsh scars. It’s a solid film. With a little more bravery, it could have been more than that.