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Boudica review – dreary take on Norfolk’s killer queen is as gritty as a sponge

Boudica, the Iceni queen who led an insurrection against the Roman colonisers in first-century Britain, is one of the great feminist icons from ancient history, but there are surprisingly few cinematic representations of her.

There was a British TV show from 1978 called Warrior Queen that had the great Siân Phillips daubed in woad, a just-OK film from 2003 also called Warrior Queen that starred Alex Kingston, and a smattering of others in various languages, mostly for TV. And, of course, there’s the utterly iconic segment in Horrible Histories where Queen B (Martha Howe-Douglas) sings a grungy ditty about how her bloody campaign. (“Bow man, yeoman, smash the Roman foe man / All say ‘Yah / It’s Boudic-a!’”). But all that still leaves room for a great feature film about the toughest, most heroic gal to come out of Norfolk, up there with Edith Cavell and Delia Smith.

Sadly, the vacancy remains after this dreary take on the killer queen, here played by Ukrainian-French actor Olga Kurylenko. Now, some may doubt this, but I have seen passable performances from Kurylenko – for instance, as a concert pianist in The Death of Stalin. That said, in general she’s better when speaking French or just standing around looking decorative. This, unfortunately, is one of her worst turns, in a role where everything hinges on the actor playing the lead being able to project majesty and grit.

Kurylenko is about as gritty as a used sponge, and has a thin, feeble voice that’s especially unconvincing in scenes where she’s meant to rally troops with impassioned rhetoric. About halfway through, there is a scene where her character is brought terrible news of a loved one’s death. As Kurylenko goes into despairing yowls, the film turns down the audio and cranks up tragic-sounding music, usually a strong sign that even the film-makers could tell this performance was going to convince no one, so best just smother it in a surge of treacly strings.

Writer-director Jesse V Johnson has scant talent for dialogue either; Horrible Histories had more gravitas. What Johnson is good at – and so he should be, given his earlier career as a stunt performer and coordinator – is choreographing fights and fisticuffs. Although the film often looks like a home movie shot with half a dozen live action role play devotees messing around in a forest, the thwacking of swords and plunging of knives is a bit of a hoot. At one point, someone gets their head cut off and the dismembered visage keeps on blinking and gasping with incredulity at this indignity – a sensation viewers of this film will undoubtedly relate to.

• Boudica is released on 30 October on digital platforms.