There is, without a shadow of a doubt, a lavish historical epic to be made about Boudica, queen of the British Iceni, famed chariot user and killer of Romans. We can imagine her being the topic of the last movie for Ridley Scott before he retires. It’s crying out for a large canvas to tell her story.
This interpretation of Boudica is not that historical epic. It’s got some spirited performances and a couple of satisfying, bloody deaths, but its canvas is about as large as a five-pence piece. Too often, it can feel like someone has smuggled an iPhone into a historical reenactment, rather than it being a sweeping tale of one of Britain’s most celebrated figures.
Boudica makes the bold choice of casting Ukrainian actor Olga Kurylenko as its British queen. Co-star of Quantum of Solace, she is absolutely capable of bearing a film on her shoulders, but here she looks out of her depth. It’s certainly not an easy role to sell – the writers make the bold decision of making her a meek partner to the stronger Prasutagus, which gives her a huge distance to cross to eventually become the warrior queen.
That span is too far for both the performance and the script. Olga plays Boudica as doey-eyed and insulated from the action in the first half, while a sharp pivot forces us to accept her as a Chosen One in the second half. Suddenly, she plays the role of Boudica, screaming and staring maniacally at anyone who approaches her. She doesn’t have the commanding presence to pull this off, and the blind devotion she demands from her British tribes feels false as a result. We’re not sure anyone could have pulled it off in the whiplash-inducing timeframe and with the state of the script that’s been handed to her.
A half-hearted stab at mysticism doesn’t help things. A few events tease that Boudica may be backed by the gods, and they mostly left us chortling into our tea. Not since The Last Jedi’s Princess Leia moment was there a more unnecessary and out of place use of magic.
Some performances do threaten to drag the biopic out of its sub-BBC costume drama doldrums. Clive Standen as Prasutagus is commanding, while we were constantly waiting for Peter Franzen (The Wheel of Time) as Wolfgar to connive or backstab Boudica. Lucy Martin, too, makes an impact as one of Boudica’s warrior women. But they’re all mired in direction that makes the events distractingly small.
It never feels like more than ten or twelve Brits are surrounding Boudica at any one time, and most of the city sieges are executed at night. It tightens the focus around Boudica, but also makes the forces she commands seem impossibly small. Viewers who haven’t heard of Boudica would be excused for thinking that she led a tribe of a dozen or so men and women, such is the modesty of what’s on screen. It gives the impression that someone approached a group of reenactors if they fancied being in a movie, which probably isn’t too far from the truth.
Director Jessie V Johnson has a history in stunt work, which comes across in the handful of fights. They’re not particularly flowing or artful – choppy editing will do that to a movie – but there’s some gusto here. There’s lots of blood, too, and a mean eye for fun moments of carnage. A blinking decapitated head doesn’t hold up to any kind of CGI scrutiny, but it’s good fun.
The problem is that Boudica is never campy enough to be entertaining, nor interested enough in the events it’s portraying to be intriguing. Instead, it dearly wants to trace the arc of a proud, slightly coddled woman all the way to the face-painted firebrand that we know from history. But Olga Kurylenko can’t carry that load, the script doesn’t help her by making her metamorphosis unbelievable, and the direction makes the change seem so small, so inconsequential.
Boudica deserves a true movie tribute. Her story is too great not to. When that happens, we will safely file this movie away as an also-ran.