Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"That we stick with her through this is down to the magnetism of Kurylenko’s performance." | Photo: courtesy of Signature Entertainment

Given the dramatic nature of her life and the esteem in which she is still held nearly 2,000 years after her death, it is surprising how little interest cinema has taken in the Ancient Iceni queen Boudica. This take on her transformation from queen consort to outcast to legendary leader, and the rebellion which followed, was a passion project for writer/director Jesse V Johnson, who spent many years bringing it to fruition. Though less spectacular than it might have been due to obvious budgetary limitations, it ought to make its mark, thanks in part to a powerful central performance from Olga Kurylenko in the title role.

Kurylenko has a long history of lending her talents to independent films and enabling them to punch above their weight. it would be impossible to tell this story without such a charismatic lead, but she’s more than that: she’s versatile, which is vital, as she’s no warrior when the story begins. The wife of King Prasutagus, a puppet monarch who might be seen as a protector of his people or a collaborator, depending on how one looks at him, she’s essentially a middle class housewife and diplomat, a mother focused on raising her two daughters so that they can follow in her footsteps. This gives Johnson an opportunity to illustrate the opportunities offered by the Roman Empire to those it favoured, and to ensure that we don’t buy into the stereotype of Britons from that era as uneducated peasants or savages.

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The name Boudica (written in a variety of different ways over the intervening centuries) has often been interpreted as a title rather than a birth name, since it means ‘victorious one’. Here is is given to her by a barbarian woman (Lucy Martin of Vikings fame) whom she meets in a marketplace, who recognises her Trinovanti heritage and associates her with an ancient prophecy. This notion of destiny is one which Johnson returns to at intervals, adding to the film’s epic quality. Is it just in the imagination of Boudica’s followers? That notion is complicated by a scene involving a sword and a lake with rather obvious implications. In invoking the myth of King Arthur, Johnson makes particular reference to Excalibur, at one point even incorporating a reworked version of the motif from Wagner’s Siegfried’s Funeral which accompanies the young king’s awakening to his calling.

Boudica’s fate is not so much chosen as thrust upon her; likewise the fate of her girls, though Johnson chooses not to present us with the full horror recorded in Tacitus’ account. He keeps them present in the story through a device which brings us further into the mindset of the era than most films set in or around then. When adopted as a political symbol, Boudica has often been represented as a woman ahead of her time, but that owes a lot to the erroneous assumption that she was unusual as a female warrior. Here there is no sense of her as a modern figure. Although Johnson elides some of her more brutal acts, he lets her talk about her intentions towards not only Roman soldiers but their wives and children, offering no apology for notions of justice which – in most cases – are now widely rejected.

That we stick with her through this is down to the magnetism of Kurylenko’s performance. It helps that she looks fantastic in woad – used in a historically accurate way for once – which adds emphasis to her ferocious gaze. She’s the antithesis of Harry Kirton’s Emperor Nero, who conjures up aspects of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus and Malcolm McDowell’s Caligula, though without the force of either. Operating on his behalf is Catus Decianus (Nick Moran). At her side is Wolfgar (Peter Franzén), a general whose presence adds credibility to her early victories, as she is clearly an inexperienced tactician herself. Johnson maintains an interesting dynamic between them without allowing too much Hollywood-style plotting to creep in.

This preference for sticking close to the known facts creates problems in places. Her most spectacular triumphs are mentioned but left unseen, presumably for budgetary reasons. This puts more weight on the ending which, despite a slight reworking, struggles to provide the catharsis which viewers will have been waiting for. That sense of destiny doesn’t quite feel justified. Nevertheless, insofar as it goes, this is an impressive piece of work. First class stunt work enables Johnson to make scenes of soldiers hacking at each other in the forest look much more exciting than they should. It’s a shame that the money wasn’t there to make it the full blown epic that it should have been.

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2023
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The story of the legendary Iceni queen who led a revolt against Roman occupiers.

Director: Jesse V Johnson

Writer: Jesse V Johnson

Starring: Olga Kurylenko, Peter Franzén, Lucy Martin, Nick Moran, Kris Johnson, Harry Kirton

Year: 2023

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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