Movie Review: The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (2019)

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It's all fun and filmmaking until someone almost loses an eye.

After years of building up her comfort level on horseback and getting in fighting shape to portray The Warrior Queen of Jhansi in the script she wrote alongside her filmmaker mother Swati Bhise and Olivia Emden, dancer-actress Devika Bhise knew it was time to get even more serious about her training. Studying Kalaripayattu, the world’s oldest martial art form with Jackie Chan’s instructor Gopakumar Gurukkal, Devika Bhise dove headfirst into her lessons so literally that she required emergency surgery after a shard of metal weaponry flew into her eye.

While most people would've jumped ship at this point, Bhise didn't let the injury sideline her for long. Latching onto another weapon — the long, thin, whip-like sword urumi — Bhise got right back on the horse in a move that no doubt would've impressed Rani Lakshmibai, the real life heroine she brings to life in Warrior Queen.

A headstrong commoner turned wife, queen, and widow of the maharajah by the time she’s in her early twenties, Rani finds a new calling when the royally aligned, corrupt mercantile trading corporation the British East India Company tries to steal back the land they'd given to India and claim Jhansi as their own following her husband's death.

Going from widowed queen to warrior general when diplomatic measures fail, Rani Lakshmibai begins training the women of Jhansi to fight in order to stand up to British tyranny and assert their independence, ultimately leading her countrywomen (and men) into war in producer turned first time feature filmmaker Swati Bhise's exciting if overwrought biopic.

Cramming hundreds of years of backstory into the film's slightly confusing first act, Warrior Queen is ready for action from the very first frame. In fact, hindered by a weak narrative throughline, Bhise’s film is so eager to get to the battlefield that — prioritizing conflict over character — it forgoes the vital step of endearing us to Rani, which is a major problem since she's the one at the heart of the picture marching us into the fray.

While chronicling Rani's efforts to unite her people as Jhansi's revolutionary war against the British gets underway in the 1850s makes the film seem like a natural fit for American audiences from an academic perspective, Queen suffers from the same affliction that most war movies do in that it's hard to care about characters that we don't know know very well.

Though her early actions, such as her bold refusal to shave her head (as is the archaic custom for women in mourning), speak volumes, the film doesn't trust itself enough to rely on more small acts of rebellion to help define our leading lady throughout.

Preferring instead to have Rani constantly voice her thoughts and goals aloud in anachronistic twenty-first century platitudes, while the undeniably well-intentioned feminist passion project wears its heart in its shots, the push-and-pull it faces between the film’s setting in the past and the script written in the present proves to be an even bigger battle than the one onscreen against the British.

Uncertain of precisely which tone it is that Bhise wishes to strike, the film opens like an epic from the 1950s (and indeed the last Rani Lakshmibai biopic, The Tiger and the Flame was made in 1953), but then veers into modern Wonder Woman territory as soon as our queen becomes a warrior. Collaborating with the stunt coordinators who worked on the Patty Jenkins helmed superhero film, Marcus Shakesheff and Glenn Marks turn Devika Bhise's Indian Joan of Arc into a wonder woman on horseback for the film's impressive battle sequences.

Veering away from the frenetic urgency of war shot in a breathless contemporary style to a classically framed walk-and-talk as we see Rani’s royal side, just when Bhise's film starts to draw us in, Warrior Queen loses its momentum by drifting back and forth unevenly between the two modes of filmmaking.

Giving Rani an ally and potential love interest in the form of Robert Ellis (Ben Lamb), a sympathetic British envoy who's inspired by the beautiful royal, as well as linking her plight as queen to that of Queen Victoria in England (played by Jodhi May), the screenwriters attempt to augment their one-note heroine in a study of compare and contrast. At this point, however, it's too little too late.

A handsomely photographed, thematically appealing tale of an underdog heroine standing up to injustice (as well as any man who crosses her path), while it's fine on the surface, the awkwardly paced and clunkily scripted film fails to find the rhythm it needs to work as well as it should.

With little in the way of staying power, thanks to the lack of a real connection to its titular heroine, although it's entertaining enough for a casual viewing, once the final credits roll, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi vanishes quickly from our minds. And unfortunately in this case, unlike the impressively skilled Devika Bhise, we’re unable to blame our filmic amnesia on something as cool as learning to fight and taking a shard of metal to the eye.

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