Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Woman King

16/010/22

Cineworld IMAX, Edinburgh

It’s 1823, and in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, King Ghezo (John Boyega) rules over a tribe who are continually being oppressed by their neighbours, the Oyu, who repeatedly take captives and sell them as slaves to the Portuguese traders who have begun to infiltrate their territory. The Oyu have clearly decided that their best chance of survival is to join up with the invaders, but King Ghezo has a powerful weapon: the Agojie, a select group of warrior women, who are pledged to fight to the death to defend Dahomey. They are led by General Ninisca (an impressibly buff Viola Davis), supported by her veteran lieutenants, Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim).

New recruit Nawi (Thusu Mbedu) arrives after her father casts her out for refusing to marry the openly abusive elderly husband he’s lined up for her. She begins the rigorous process of learning the ways of the Agojie. If she is going to be accepted as a warrior she will have to prove her mettle – and the path to acceptance is a hard one.

Meanwhile, General Ninisca is always watching to find her weaknesses…

The Woman King is an epic adventure story with thrilling action set-pieces – but it’s more than just that. It’s also a commentary on the horrors of colonisation and the slavery that goes hand-in-hand with it. It’s a story about kinship and motherhood and it’s a handsomely mounted visualisation of a mostly forgotten era in the history of Africa – a time when women were encouraged to take a leading role in the protection of their people’s way of life.

Davis is always impressive, but she’s rarely been more convincing than she is here, as a hard as nails powerhouse, who stands ready to give her life to her cause. Both Lynch and Atim also offer standout performances in roles that are much more nuanced than you might expect in an action movie, and I’m quite sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mbedu in the not too distant future. Gina Prince-Bythewood handles the directorial honours with assurance and Terence Blanchard’s eclectic score is incredibly rousing, his battle anthems stirring enough to make you want to march beside the Agojie. This is definitely one to watch on the IMAX screen if you get the chance, because the world-building here is superbly done and benefits from the immersive qualities of a giant screen, particularly in those powerful battle scenes.

Ironically, before the film, there’s a trailer for upcoming Black Panther sequel, Wakanda Forever, which will be attempting some African world-building of its own on behalf of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though the society that Ryan Coogler and his team create will be entirely fictional).

No prizes for guessing which of the two films will draw the biggest crowds, and that’s a shame, because the events featured in The Woman King are (however loosely) based on history; and the paltry audience at Cineworld this Sunday afternoon are treated to a big, bold, beautiful slice of cinema, which deserves to be seen by millions.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Old Guard

22/07/20

Netflix

Charlize Theron’s steady advance into the realms of the action hero continues apace with this Netflix Original, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and based – unsurprisingly – on a comic book by Greg Rucka. Theron plays ‘Andy’ (or Andromadache of Scythia, if you want to be more formal about it), a centuries-old warrior princess. She’s the leader of a group of immortals who spend their spare time as mercenaries, jetting off to the world’s war zones to offer help to those who need it – kicking much ass as they do so.

The team also features Booker (Matthias Schoenarts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), characters Andy has encountered at various points across the world’s turbulent history, none of whom has much of a backstory – or at least not that the writer has bothered to share with us. When the team’s latest mission turns out to be a double cross, they quickly realise that somebody wants to capture them, and it becomes clear that CIA operative, Copley (Chiwetel ¬†Ejiofor in a rather thankless role), is a key player in this operation.

Meanwhile, young GI, Nile (Kiki Layne), is wondering why a supposedly fatal injury she’s recently acquired in the line of duty hasn’t finished her off. Could it be that she’s the next new recruit for Andy’s team? Sure enough, Andy is soon showing her the ropes…

To be fair, The Old Guard isn’t the total debacle that many reviews have labelled it. It’s hokum, for sure, but it’s niftily directed hokum, which features several developments you don’t often see in a mainstream punch ’em up. Women are placed at the forefront of the action, for instance, while Joe and Nicky are lovers and proud to declare the fact to anyone who’ll listen.

But the story doesn’t always convince. We’re told that members of the team are immortal until ‘it’s time to die,’ which seems to be a case of having your cake and eating it – while Copley’s actions are frankly incomprehensible, lauding Andy and her crew in one breath and ratting them out in the next. His involvement with ruthless scientist and all-round bad egg, Merrick (Harry Melling), is unconvincing to say the least. What exactly are his motives?

Still, this is sprightly enough to pass a couple of hours with ease Р even if the obvious attempt to set this up as the first in a series is a tad optimistic.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney