One of many nice strengths of the brand new movie The Girl King, which premiered on the Toronto Worldwide Movie Competition on Friday, is how keenly it is aware of its dimensions. It proudly wears each its old style development—it is a sword-and-sandal epic within the fashion of yesteryear—alongside the freshness of its perspective. An action-drama sourced from historical past (whereas riffing significantly on that historical past), The Girl King is a sturdy testomony to how renewed a staid type can really feel when it’s stretched to incorporate completely different narratives.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Girl King is about within the 1820s within the kingdom of Dahomey, in what’s now Benin. Slavers from Europe and the Americas have ravaged the land and its folks and stoked wars between West African empires. A younger Dahomey king, Ghezo (John Boyega), sits on the throne. He is entertained by a coterie of wives, leaving the powerful stuff, the combating and dying, to the Agojie, a legion of feminine warriors famend for his or her navy prowess.
Dahomey has grown wealthy by taking part within the slave commerce, which places it in uneasy ethical context. The Girl King is conscious of that fraught historical past, and takes care in addressing it. What could possibly be a blunt and thrashing battle movie is as a substitute given considerate texture by Prince-Bythewood, screenwriter Dana Stevens, and a robust ensemble of actors. Ostensibly on the lead is Viola Davis, a titan of the leisure trade who nonetheless has been given valuable few alternatives to headline a studio movie like this. As Nanisca, the overall of the Agojie, Davis is in her stentorian aspect, stern however accessible.
Maybe the true protagonist of the movie, although, is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a headstrong teenager handed over to the Agojie by her disapproving father. Thus begins her coaching, which The Girl King depicts in scenes warmly acquainted to followers of all types of movies, from Spartacus to Prime Gun. Mbedu, such a commanding revelation on The Underground Railroad, sharply illustrates each Nawi’s impetuous independence and her dawning sense of responsibility to her sister-warriors. She has a useful mentor-friend in Izogie (Lashana Lynch), whereas Amenza (Sheila Atim) supplies clever counsel—and offers slightly pushback—to Nanisca.
Whereas The Girl King enjoys the corporate of those formidable girls, it doesn’t allow us to neglect that they’ll quickly be combating for his or her lives. Dahomey is threatened by its bitter rivals and oppressors, the Oyo, who promote captured Dahomey folks to slavers, disappearing them on boats and slowly decimating the group. (Dahomey does the identical to its captives, it should be mentioned, nevertheless a lot Nanisca hopes to finish that follow.) For a movie that has been marketed as a rumbling fight film, The Girl King is surprisingly, however not disappointingly, sparing with its motion. When tensions do give technique to violence, Prince-Bythewood employs the identical intuitive physics that lent such snap to The Outdated Guard.
The combating registers that rather more potently as a result of we now have spent a lot downtime with these girls of warfare. Even so, Nanisca could possibly be extra fleshed out. There’s a trauma in her previous that involves bear mightily on the current, however the movie doesn’t do sufficient to hone and deepen that story. Nanisca stays elusive, regardless of Davis’s magnetic presence.
A perfunctory romance—or one thing near romance—that’s shoehorned into the movie ought to both have been tossed out fully or extra completely developed. It generally appears as if The Girl King is straining to comprise its ambition, reluctant to blow issues as much as the maximalist scale of a real, three-hour epic. I want that Prince-Bythewood (and her backers at Sony) had simply gone for it, swelling the movie to permit correct room for its many characters and tangling plotlines.
It’s there, perhaps, the place some studio skittishness may be detected. The movie has a comparatively modest finances (a reported $50 million) for one thing of this scope, and maybe there was a tacit directive to maintain issues as trim as attainable. Which is a disgrace. An incredible film glimmers on the edges of a great one, a shadow of what may have been, had The Girl King been afforded the time and sources to appreciate its full potential.
Nonetheless, what’s been delivered is strong, righteous leisure, cognizant of troubled historical past however modifying and manipulating simply as so many interval movies about Romans and different conquerors have finished for many years. The Girl King stands confidently in that custom, whereas providing the joys of the brand new. How thrilling it’s to see onscreen a spot and other people—an entire grand saga of civilization—which have by no means earlier than been provided that therapy. The Girl King reminds us of how a lot unclaimed territory there’s but to discover on movie of any style, planting its flag firmly in long-unacknowledged earth.