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Chris Knight: The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is an ambitious debut that doesn't always deliver

A scene from The Warrior Queen of Jhansi.
A scene from The Warrior Queen of Jhansi.

Almost a century before India gained independence from Britain, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 provided a kind of dress rehearsal; it ended rule by the British East India Company, but in turn set up the Crown rule of the Raj, which would last another 90 years.

Mumbai-born filmmaker Swati Bhise tells the royal story of Rani Lakshmibai, played by the director’s daughter, Devika Bhise. When the British denied the legitimacy of her adopted son and heir, and tried to take possession of her territory by force, she fought back with an army of female soldiers; her stoicism and heroism drew others to her cause.

This is a first film from Bhise, and an ambitious one, though it doesn’t always deliver the force the story deserves. After opening with an awkward historical voiceover – “In 1600, the East India Company was set up …” – the film often relies on flat exposition by secondary characters to move the plot forward.

Much of this is delivered by Queen Victoria (Jodhi May), accompanied by an Indian manservant, presumably meant to evoke the clerk she befriended in 2017’s Victoria & Abdul. Only trouble is that he didn’t join her court for another three decades.

More information comes from Major Robert Ellis (Ben Lamb), a British soldier sympathetic to Lakshmibai and also rather transparently crushing on her. On the eve of battle, both are seen in their separate beds reminiscing about time spent together. This is the kind of movie where he remembers a chess move and her explanation (“Sometimes a sacrifice is the only way out”), which then echoes in the conflict of the next day.

It’s also the sort of film where an Indian character reveals to an astonished Briton that he speaks the Queen’s English; we’d be amazed too if only the Indians didn’t switch freely between English and Hindi even when talking among themselves. And a minor point this, but adding a Wilhelm scream in the heat of a serious battle scene does take away from the drama.

Finally, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi sometimes seems to be bending over backwards to talk to us in the present, with pointed homilies about colonial rule and female empowerment. “Do you really think you can train these women to fight like men?” asks one of Lakshmibai’s advisors, watching her soldiers. “No,” she replies. “I will train them to fight better than men.” Touché.

2 stars

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi opens Nov. 15 in, Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Brampton, Ont., Vancouver and Mission, B.C.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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