REASON: In 1823, Nanisca (Viola Davis) is the daring leader of the Agojie, an all-female regiment tasked with protecting the kingdom of Dahomey. After a traumatic experience where she was taken as a slave, Nanisca is on edge with the slave trade her kingdom participates in, but is forced to follow orders. As the nightmares become harder to stave off, she is tasked with training a new generation of warriors, including the headstrong Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), with whom she shares a surprising connection.
REVIEW: The female king is a film that Viola Davis proudly called her magnum opus at CinemaCon, earlier this year. By pushing herself to her physical limits and undergoing a transformation that transformed her from a beloved character actress to an action hero, Davis clearly went out of her way in the service of her passion project. A thoughtful and beautifully directed epic, The female king is terrifically entertaining, even if it’s bogged down by an extraneous romantic subplot and the PG-13 rating, which makes the action sequences tamer than they should be.
One thing worth noting is the controversy that has already arisen surrounding the film’s depiction of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Many expected that empire that participates in the slave trade would be left out of the movie, but the opposite is true. One of the film’s central conflicts is that Davis’s Nanisca bravely opposes the practice, while her king (John Boyega’s King Ghezo) participates somewhat reluctantly. I will leave it to the historians to say whether this is correct or not, but at least they tackle the subject head on and do The female king a much more well-rounded historical epic at that than some gave it credit for based on the trailer alone.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film is a solid historical epic that benefits from a stellar cast, led by Davis at her very best. If the likes of Bob Odenkirk and Liam Neeson can become action heroes in their 50s, Davis looks to show people that she can too. Her raw intensity is supported by a newly developed physique that makes her an impressive action heroine, and she performs exceptionally well in the many action scenes. But her pathos and empathy for not only her people, but also those she helps conquer, is what truly makes Nanisca an absorbing leader. Lashana Lynch backs her up as Izogie, the band’s most formidable warrior, and it’s another badass role for the actress who seems a natural fit for the action genre.
The female king uses a classic formula to tell Agojie’s story. We’ve all seen the movie where the rebellious new addition to the team has to fall in line, and Thuso Mbedu (Nawi) is this movie’s Maverick. She is shown to be a headstrong villager who rejects her parents when they try to force her to marry, forcing them to join Agojie. She proves to be a natural, with Izogie taking her under his wing, but she is also headstrong and refuses to follow orders. The conflict/admiration between her and Nanisca is out of the action movie handbook, but it works. It helps that Mbedu has a lot of charisma and presence, in addition to handling the action scenes by adopting a unique fighting style that we see her come up with throughout the film.
However, The female king also falters when it tries to attach an extraneous romance between Nawi and a half-Dahomean/half-Portuguese slave, played by Jordan Bolger. It feels like it’s out of another movie, with lots of breathless scenes of Bolger shirtless, while Mbedu, unrealistically, seems attracted to a man who hangs out with the same people who routinely enslave her people. The relationship between Agojie was enough; it didn’t need extra romance taking up runtime that would have been better spent on some of the other new Agojie recruits.
Another problem, which is not Prince-Blythewood’s fault, is that the film is hampered by a PG-13 rating that robs the action scenes of their impact. The sound team works overtime to give us a sense of brutality, but there’s no blood or gore as Davis and her crew hack opponents to pieces. It makes the fights look a little too sharp, but I suppose this was a compromise they had to make to get a PG-13. It is scandalous that a film can suffer The female king must cut back on the violence so much while thousands of people may die in the latest superhero movie. Yet more proof that the MPAA is hopelessly out of date, but I digress.
ultimately, The female king is a well-executed historical action film with the director’s strong take on the material and impressive performances all around. Although I could have dispensed with the romantic subplot and used a bit more blood, I still enjoyed it from start to finish and can give it an easy recommendation.