Film review: THE QUEEN OF KATWE, from ‘Built For Speed’

While few outside the chess playing community will know this true story’s details, The Queen of Katwe is a very familiar type of film.  Mixing a Slumdog Millionaire-type story in which a downtrodden person uses their unique talent to lift themselves out of poverty with a To Sir with Love-style depiction of a committed teacher inspiring underprivileged children, this film ticks nearly every box of the triumphant underdog movie.  While at times a little too familiar, this exceptionally well-made Disney film manages to strike some powerful emotional chords.

The film tells the remarkable story of Phiona Mortesi (Madina Nalwanga) a young girl living in the slums of Uganda who, with her mother (Lupita Nyongo) and brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) scratches out a living selling maize on the street. When Phiona stumbles across a chess club run by dedicated charity worker Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) she is immediately intrigued by the game’s strategy and discipline.  Rapidly learning the subtle art of chess she becomes a successful competitor and dreams of obtaining the revered title of grand master.  The reality of her life in the depths of poverty, however, throws what seem to be insurmountable obstacles in the way of that dream.

This film is at times predictable.  Phionas’ ascent through the Ugandan chess rankings and the setbacks she encounters play out within the familiar template of the sports film.  Also, the movie is a little too obvious in the way it manufactures villains, in this case the snooty chess bureaucracy who don’t want a slum kid tainting their supposedly respectable image.

Excellent performances from the entire cast mostly overcome these clichés, however and make the film a believable human drama.  Madini Nalawanga delivers a low-key, natural and utterly believable performance as Phiona.  Thankfully, rather than an angel she portrays Phiona as a sympathetic yet contradictory figure whose success as a chess player fires her intellect and desire to achieve but also leads to some self-centred and arrogant behaviour.  As the mother, Lupita Nyongo effectively embodies resilience and palpable fear for her children’s future.  David Oylewyo is excellent as always, showing Robert to be an inspirational but flawed figure.

Watching people play chess isn’t necessarily the most thrilling spectacle but director Mira Nair extracts plenty of tension from each concerted chess battle.

The Queen of Katwe isn’t exactly a revelatory piece of cinema but it is an inspiring one.

Screening at: Cinema Nova.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Biopic/ drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Mira Nair.

Release date: 1st Dec 2016.

Running time: 124 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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