Film Review: Queen of Katwe

The fairytale story that is Queen of Katwe ticks boxes, but the formula it follows is a satisfying and moving one with Oscar-worthy performances.

While this strongly-acted, Disney-produced, factually-based drama from Indian director Mira Nair tries too hard at times to be inspirational and uplifting, it actually is anyway, despite the serious predictability of it all, the sneaking suspicion that much has been tweaked and composited (if not quite sanitised), and an ending that would only come as a surprise to someone who had never seen a movie before.

Phiona Mutesi (wonderfully played by complete unknown Madina Nalwanga) is an illiterate teen from a Katwe slum in Uganda, whose mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and large family spend their days trying desperately to eke out a living. Her whole world changes when, in 2007, she meets Robert Katende (Oxford-born David Oyelowo), a soccer coach, who turns to teaching chess mostly when he realises that such a game leads to fewer injuries.

Robert immediately sees that Phiona has a prodigious talent and is soon taking her, her brother Mugabi Brian (Martin Kabanza) and other Katwe kids to tournaments in fancy schools, Sudan, Russia and beyond, and although the clichés start hitting, it’s hard not to feel the suspense, even if chess is a strikingly uncinematic game.

Nakku worries that Robert is giving Phiona too much hope and a checklist of plot tricks just keep on cropping up. The richer opponents are rude and snobby? Tick. Robert must decide if he’ll shoot for a high-paying job to help his wife and baby or keep on coaching the children? Tick. Phiona has several crises of confidence and for a while behaves like a diva? Tick and tick. There are accidents, floods, shouting matches and periods of alienation? Tick, tick, tick and tick.

However, this must have been drawn from something like the truth, as the real people involved (profiled in Tim Crothers’ magazine article and book and William Wheeler’s screenplay) gave their blessing and were often on the set and just off-camera, and it’s all most moving anyway, with Nalwanga delivering an Oscar-worthy performance. Check mate.

Rated PG. Queen of Katwe is in cinemas now.

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