There are no surprise moves in competition chess drama Queen of Katwe, but it seems churlish to complain when you’re watching an assured filmmaker like Mira Nair breathe live into what is an undeniably formulaic sporting underdog tale.
On a visual level alone, the Indian director is a good fit for this Uganda-set drama. Her love of bright colour palettes, evident in such films as Monsoon Wedding, Kama Sutra and Salaam Bombay, is on full display here.
She’s also a dab hand at etching equally vivid characters, and Queen of Katwe is full of them, most notably the titular heroine of the story.
The first of several colourful intertitles appears at the beginning to tell us the year is 2006. In the Ugandan slum of Katwe lives 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga). One day with her brother, she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) at a missionary program. He encourages them to learn to play chess. Phiona shows a natural aptitude for the game and soon becomes a top player.
As the graphics jump from year by year, Phiona becomes more accomplished and the competitions get more prestigious. Soon she is representing her country at the World Chess Olympiads.
Along the way Phiona is constantly looked down on and underestimated, firstly by the boys in her village, then by the wealthier school boys at state competitions and finally by international protegees with the very best tutors that money can buy.
Meanwhile at home, Phiona’s single Mum, the principled Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), struggles to keep a roof over the heads of her children. There are various family setbacks, but Katende remains an unfailing source of support throughout the tribulations.
Much of what sets Queen apart from other films of its ilk is the buoyant energy of the characters, the humour in the script, and the very strong performances by the entire cast. First-timer Nalwanga is a natural as Phiona. Luminous and magnetic, she carries the weight of the film with ease. She’s ably supported by her more experienced co-stars, Nyong’o, a powerhouse as her mother Nakku, instilling fear into any man with her blazing glare, and Oyelowo, a rock of compassionate stability as her mentor.
There is so much verve and personality among the kids of Katwe which infuses the film with an exhilarating energy despite the poverty of the setting.
This may be a Disney production based on an ESPN magazine article, but William Wheeler’s humour-infused screenplay is always sharp and engaging. Even the chess-as-life metaphors feel fresh and natural.
Alex Heffes’ score, too, makes a valuable contribution, adding suspense and drama to the chess matches, while more indigenous tunes fill the soundtrack for the external scenes.
At just over 2 hours, Queen of Katwe runs out of gas slightly towards the end. The final scenes are a let down after what feels like the film’s natural climax.
During the final credits, we meet the real people standing by the actors who played them, which is a nice touch.
As the queen of Katwe herself says at one point, she doesn’t need to go for the stealth attack. Like her, the film is a class act, direct and dignified. Well played.
Queen of Katwe is currently in national release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee