Viola Davis kills in African war epic


film review

Run time: 126 minutes. Rated PG-13 (strongly violent sequences, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity). It opens in theaters on September 16.

TORONTO — “The Queen” marks a ceasefire between two long-warring foes: action and performance.

The Viola Davis-led film premieres Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, and we’re transported back to the glory days of the 1980s and ’90s, when big budgets, fight scenes, romance and drama were frequent Blends into a delightful cinematic package.

What a refreshing break from what usually constitutes an epic these days – mixing Ant and The Hulk.

In the highly entertaining “Queen,” Davis plays Naniska, a seasoned general who serves as an experienced general in an all-female fighting force called the Agojie in the African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. general. They are a real and fascinating part of history.

(Their actual battle at the time may not have looked like “The Matrix,” but hooray Hollywood.)

Dahomey is at war with the Oyo Empire, which has been capturing innocents and selling them into slavery. Nanisca won’t take any of that, and she’s backed by her badass lieutenants Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim, a brilliant British stage actress who deserves more recognition).

At the heart of the film is a group of recruits who arrive at the group’s palace training ground – Navi (Tusom Bedou), whom her father sends away after she refuses to marry a suitor; Ode (Adrienne) Warren), a captive with a chance to train; and Fumbe (Masali Baduza), a girl rescued from the slave trade.

All three are memorable, especially Mbedu, who hides a secret Arya Stark killer instinct behind his sweet exterior.

Viola Davis’ Naniska leads a formidable fighting force in “The Queen.”
provided by TIFF

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood gives us good old-fashioned training sequences like “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid.” The timing of the women’s summer camp is also reminiscent of “Mulan,” but no one here sings “Be a Man.” There are some fun sword-wielding dance sequences in front of the king (John Boyega), though.

Focused and ready to fight now, the ensemble (well, their stunt doubles, anyway) worked out some of the best action scenes of the year. Relentless but elegant, wakes you up and grabs your collar. They pile up bodies like Davis piles up Oscar nods.

Prince-Bythewood is one of the few directors who consistently produces solid action films. Her last film for Netflix, The Old Guard, is better than anything the Russo brothers have made available for streaming. She has a gift for blending feeling with fireworks.

Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, Agojie's recruit.  Viola Davis kills in African war epic MCDWOKI TR011
Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, Agojie’s recruit.
© Samsung Images/Courtesy Ever

The “king” doesn’t always rule.

I’m not sold on the “One Life To Live” twist involving Nanisca. The tactical line was definitely put there, giving the character more contour and taking advantage of Davis’ deep emotions. That’s great. The move still seems overly obvious and unnecessary.

Nawi with a Brazilian slave trader named Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose mother is from Dahomey and his father is white. He shows up everywhere, and we get the impression that the producers thought giving too much screen time to a love story could damage the feminist vibe. But why introduce it?

Those are minor issues, though, and the movie works really well overall.

Incidentally, Davis delivered the kind of strong, stoic, wrenching performance we’ve come to expect after his victories in “Doubt,” “Fences,” and “How to Get Out of Murder.” But despite the title and the exhilarating “Henry V” St. Crispin-style speech, “The Queen” is a downright ensemble effort.

They are “women”, hear them growl.

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