The Warrior Queen of Jhansi has everything it needs for an engaging film, a familiar template with a captivating singularity in its execution. If only it could get out of its own way.
The story of Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, practically delivers itself on a platter for anybody who wants to make an epic period piece. The tale of a female Indian monarch leading her people into battle against the tide of Victorian-era British imperialism recalls all at once the romance of rebellion, the specters of colonialism and the near-mythological narratives that go into nation-building. In short, there is, or should be, more than enough for a thrilling, politically resonant film. Unfortunately, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is a well-meaning mess, too cloying and superficial in its message.
Directed by renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Swati Bhise, the film is shot beautifully by cinematographer Seamus Deasy. The recreated Jhansi feels both lush and lively at once, and the transitions from intimate character beats to chaotic battle sequences feels easy. The Rani of Jhansi’s rebellion against the East India Company is replete with drama and resonance on its own, but beyond the visual spectacle, the plot’s intrinsic humanity gets mired down in melodrama and oddly sloppy structure.
The film begins with opening narration from the Rani herself (imbued with grace by Devika Bhise, the director’s daughter), a device that gets brought back jarringly in the film’s closing moments. The audience learns how a little girl taught to hunt and ride by her father grew to become the wife of the powerful Maharaja of Jhansi—and then tragically lost her four-month old baby. But all of this unfolds in the space of maybe five minutes, right before the title card, with all the concerted artfulness of a high school history presentation prepared in the minutes before class.
This strangely rushed introduction becomes indicative of the film’s central problem, as it elides over some of the most pivotal moments in the life of a protagonist who was A Real Interesting Person in History. The Warrior Queen of Jhansi seems to misunderstand its own heroine, tripping over itself attempting to justify her legend. We’re told she’s led her troops into battle before, but instead of any scenes of such prowess, we’re shown bloated flashbacks, uninspiring training montages and a rise to the throne that only came about due to the death of her husband. An actual study of the Rani, the chance to give human depth to an Indian cultural figure with a long shadow, gets left behind in favor of protracted soapy exposition.
And that soapy exposition is just exhausting. The film spends just as much of its runtime situating the Rani in her home as it does fleshing out the British colonizers, most irritatingly in its interludes centering on a young Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) back in England. Rupert Everett, for his part, essentially sleepwalks through his role as the commander Sir Hugh Rose, who’s supposedly becoming weary of his duties to the East India Company. Sir Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker), a representative of the company’s interests stationed with the troops, is such a cowardly and ineffectual cur that it’s not even fun to root against him as he rails on about the “natives.”
Most frustrating of all perhaps is Ben Lamb’s Major Robert Ellis, a soft-spoken translator and emissary to the Rani, who pleads for the British forces to show clemency to Jhansi. The audience is given to understand that he has a respect for Indian culture, and especially for the Rani, that the other British soldiers just don’t understand; in other words, he’s “one of the good ones.” For a film ostensibly about a turning point in India’s resistance to British rule, it’s disappointing that it centers on these easily-digestible caricatures of Victorian imperialism as much as it does, obscuring the historical violence of colonization with perfunctory stereotypes—though perhaps we should be more thankful that the film never meaningfully follows through on the eye-rolling romantic tension fabricated between Ellis and the Rani.
Devika Bhise is wonderful as the Rani, and the film’s best moments unequivocally belong to her, whether she’s slicing through hapless British troops with dual swords or sharing a moment of gentleness with her handmaidens. And the battle scenes, as late in the film and fleeting as they are, do convey an entertainingly dance-like brutality. But the odd pacing and contrived writing betray an unwillingness to trust the audience with the weight of the story it’s telling, a distrust that undercuts what could have been a truly powerful retelling of an old legend. With flashes of the Rani as a leader and as a woman The Warrior Queen of Jhansi has everything it needs for an engaging film, a familiar template with a captivating singularity in its execution. If only it could get out of its own way.