Disney's chess film is a sports movie in all but name, but understands how the key pieces move on and off the board
Where Mira Nair’s undeniably charming film Queen of Katwe truly succeeds is in understanding how to keep everything in check; on the one hand, there’s the child prodigy storyline to move around the chess board, as Phiona Mutesi, a real-life grand master, is introduced to the game, learns the pieces and how they can be manipulated, takes on ever greater challenges before a second-act closing knock rumbles her confidence and sets things up for the match to end all matches. On the other hand, there’s the story of life spent off the chessboard in Katwe, a slum town in Kampala, Uganda, where a fiercely dominant queen in the shape of Harriet, Phiona’s widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o), is doing what she thinks is best to keep her family together, despite having already lost their king and being beset by the constant attacks a life of poverty brings.
Every cliché imaginable plays out on screen over the 124-minute running time, from the culture clash of slum girl going head to head with the menacing bespectacled private school boy, beating him at his own game on his perfectly mown home turf, through to David Oyelowo’s mentor, a minister with a heart of gold so golden it could feasibly get all of Katwe out of poverty were they to pull it out of him and smelt it down. Phiona, played in beautifully understated strokes by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, is as much at ease portraying a deep thinker whose eight moves ahead of her competitors as she is bursting into song and dance routines with her brother while trying to flog maize to people stuck in gridlocked traffic, her chess club teammates providing comic relief with brazen one-liners.
But Nair’s control over the clichés is the key to what makes Queen of Katwe work, not allowing them to consume the film and ruin the achievements of the cast with an overburdened sentimentality. Instead, the audience is treated to a view of Uganda, where Nair has lived for years, as a vibrant and lively place where fortune, and particularly misfortune, dictates how you play the game of life. What could have been just another trite exercise in retelling the social and financial hurdles in the way of Phiona’s route to glory becomes warm and sweet milestones, from a first trip on an airplane as the children head to Sudan for the African finals, to the first sight of snow as the grandmasters battle wits in Russia.
The performances, ranging from amateur street kids to Oscar-winner Nyong’o’s first live-action appearance since 12 Years a Slave, are bubbly and bold. Oyelowo, even when spouting life-lesson lines straight out of Chess for Dummies like “Never tip your king too soon,” and “In chess, the small one may beat the big one,” delivers a mentor so charming and unthreatening that you’ll wish he could teach you how to play. But it is Nyong’o, reminding everyone that she is a star, who gets the most complicated role in the film, bursting with anger and love, a strict mother struggling to stay afloat and cautiously watching her daughter courting a life she cannot hope to provide for her.
Is there a happy ending? This is Disney, after all, but even the most cynical viewer cannot help but be moved as the end credits play out with each of the actors standing side-by-side with their real life counterpart. It’s by then that you’ll realise you’ve been emotionally played like a pawn all along.
Verdict: ★★★★☆ What Queen of Katwe lacks in originality it more than makes up for with warmth, charm, and at least one grandmaster performance.