An Ugandan girl sees her world rapidly change after being introduced to the game of chess.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A genuine delight and a true surprise, Queen of Katwe is a Disney film from a rarely used mould, significantly more daring and complex than it might have been. The film, which tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl from the ghetto of Katwe, outside of Kampala, feels directed at the underserved audience of pre-adolescent kids – those past the craze for animated fantasias and ripe for films that honour their burgeoning sophistication, their sense of the world as a complicated place. Director Mira Nair turns out to be a perfect match for the material, which follows Phiona’s progress from chess prodigy to national champion.
Young Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives with her family in a precarious shanty; her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) sells vegetables in the local market. Phiona and her younger brothers also sell maize in the street. Their father and another sibling have died. Stubborn and proud, Harriet refuses the bargain most women in her position might strike – finding a suitable arrangement with a new man. Her eldest daughter, the teenage Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze), sees the older man courting her as a way out of Katwe; for the watchful, wary Phiona she is a cautionary figure.
When a local missionary named Robert (David Oyelowo) starts a chess club in an abandoned church, Phiona drops in. Orphaned at a young age and ambivalent about taking better paying work as an engineer, Robert sees his life’s work in engaging the local kids in this game of strategy, in planning ahead. Working from Tim Crothers’s nonfiction book about Mutesi, screenwriter William Wheeler doesn’t lean too hard on the available metaphors for chess, emphasising instead the organic appeal the game might hold for Katwe’s girls and boys alike. “In chess, the small one can become the big one,” one girl tells Phiona. “That’s why I like it.”
Phiona likes it, too. But winning doesn’t come naturally to her. Nair handles a great number of nuanced elements of character and plot with impressive deftness, never hammering important details, but never letting them pass without note. Phiona first apologises for beating her male opponent; she worries about hurting his feelings; she assumes the boys are letting her win. Over time, her confidence, her intelligence, and her will to win find a balance with her sensitivity; we have the sense of a girl shedding the norms of her upbringing, and learning to preside over a game with new rules. Nalwanga’s open, sensitive face and querying presence make tender and persuasive this transformation; she is a steady, stalwart presence in a film that teems with life, colour, and motion.
Authentic is a word one hesitates to kick about in any context; in this one its use seems particularly ill advised. But against what feels like formidable odds, Nair (who has owned a home in Kampala for many years) captures something essential of Phiona’s world, and perhaps her experience. This Katwe is raucous and loving, dauntless and tough. Never slipping into kitsch or condescension, Nair pursues the spirit of local life, balancing the good with the grim. Harriet is the figure in the clearest danger of caricature: as Phiona progresses, her mother becomes suspicious of her time at the chess club, and wary of the ambitions David is firing in her daughter. Nyong’o, stunning in this difficult, somewhat thankless role, infuses Harriet’s reactionary behaviour with a lifetime of rue; she is a woman who doesn’t need an education to know better.
Nair wastes no opportunity to reveal character, to deepen our understanding of the players, their respective situations, and the larger story at hand. As Phiona begins to travel to various tournaments, with varying results, she begins to see a life beyond Katwe. She also confronts a crisis of belonging: she seeks to belong to chess more than any one place, but will chess have her? In many ways, Queen of Katwe is structured as a sports movie, an underdog story with a predictable, eye-welling outcome. It’s great surprise is the reminder of what a passion for storytelling and a talent for filmmaking can do with that simple, reliable model – which is make something you’ve never seen before, something you never saw coming.
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Queen of Katwe is in cinemas now.