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Queen of Katwe – Movie Review

21 October, 2016 — by Douglas Clarke-Williams0

“Find your safe square?” instructs Robert Katende, amateur footballer turned chess coach, in Queen of Katwe. The film happily obliges, with Mira Nair delivering a home run of a Disney crowdpleaser, which tugs on the heartstrings but doesn’t venture to far out of its comfort zone.

Queen of Katwe

Katende, played with considerable charm by David Oyelowo, is taking charge of young aspiring Grandmaster Phinoa Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). Phinoa lives in Katwe, a slum outside the Ugandan capital Kampala, with her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), sister Night (Taryn Kyaze), and young brother Richard (Ivan Jacobo and Nicholas Levesque at varying points). The family, impoverished and illiterate, scrapes a living selling maize in the teeming streets until Phinoa stumbles into Katende’s chess club and a new obsession swiftly develops.

The film passes its first, and perhaps most vital, test with flying colours in the opening sequence. The streets of Katwe are lusciously, joyfully realised, filled with light and sound and the hustle and bustle of a whole community. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt showcases the fluidly muscular camerawork which he has previously displayed to such great effect in The Place Beyond the Pines and 12 Years A Slave. The camera sweeps down on packed markets, noses its way through crowds, and lingers on hands and faces. We inhabit Katwe immediately, unquestioningly; it is swiftly made an environment rather than simply a stage.

David Oyelowo is Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi in Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE, the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess.

As far as the acting goes, Nyong’o is the clear standout. Few modern actors can convey so much with a glance or a look, as she communicates a life of pain and hardship through immaculately expressive eyes alone. She is largely responsible for giving a sense of the deeper level of suffering which runs through the community, as the world which Nair presents is otherwise relatively sanitised compared to what could have been – there are times when Disney’s family-friendly hand clearly presses on the scales. This is no City of God, but then it doesn’t really have to be.

Phinoa’s climbing of the international chess-playing ladder is handled with perfect pacing, obstacles and salvation falling like dominos as the narrative unfolds. While there’s never any real sense of mortal danger, there’s a deeper and more intractable fear that nothing will change; that if Phinoa doesn’t succeed she’ll end up exactly where she started, and once she’s had a taste of the good life the tangled streets of Katwe seem to constrict around her like a python of poverty.

While Nyong’o is the luminous heart of the film, in true School of Rock fashion it’s the kids who steal the show. Whistling, snapping and filling every scene they’re in with a restlessly infectious energy, they act as a well-positioned counterpoint to the lamentations of the top billed characters as well as the staid officiousness of the chess world.

David Oyelowo is Robert Katende and Madina Nalwanga is Phiona Mutesi in Disney's QUEEN OF KATWE, the vibrant true story of a young girl from the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess

So there are few surprises in the picture, but Nair and her cast go through the motions with skill, sensitivity and general aplomb. Images or metaphors which would be painfully over-egged in a less certain picture are here handled with admirable restraint, and the emotional climax is as irresistible even as it looms like an ocean liner on the horizon from a fairly early stage.

This is not a film which takes it upon itself to tackle the grand social issues which have put Phinoa and her family in their situation. The biggest villain of the piece is the nattily suited bureaucrat in charge of admittance to the chess tournaments, and he’s fairly swiftly won over by the aforementioned floodlight charm of Katende.

It’s also worth mentioning, of course, that the simple existence of the film itself is a far more progressive statement than anything it actually contains. To have a film (made by Disney, no less) which features an all black cast and is set in an Africa that isn’t full of noble elephants or ruthless diamond miners is a joy.

So this isn’t a film that will particularly tax or challenge you, and there’s a determined lightness to it, which can feel like a wrong note when a moment seems to demand a darker and more serious approach. But as far as the feel-good factor goes Queen of Katwe is fairly off the charts, a riot of colour and music which may be just what we need as the year draws towards darker skies. 4/5

Keep up with the latest LFF2016 reviews in our London Film Festival section, including Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion.

Queen of Katwe

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