Incredible story of African chess prodigy distinguished by fine acting performances

Film Review

Published 29/10/2016 | 00:00

Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe.
Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe.

QUEEN OF KATWE (PG)

If there is one film studio that knows how to mine real-life sporting triumph against adversity for heart-warming family drama, it's Disney.

Ice hockey (The Mighty Ducks, Miracle), winter bobsleigh (Cool Runnings), golf (The Greatest Game Ever Played), American football (Remember the Titans) and baseball (Million Dollar Arm) have all scored big.

Now it's the turn of a classic game of strategy and ruthless tactics.

Queen Of Katwe chronicles the incredible true story of a Ugandan chess prodigy, who emerged from a slum in Kampala to proudly represent her country on the international stage.

Scripted by William Wheeler and directed by Mira Nair, this joyful celebration of the human spirit deftly moves between characters, whose fates are entwined in the capital city.

The film avoids checkmate by cliches in a genuinely moving second act and doesn't overplay the sporting metaphors, even when a little girl explains the process of promoting a pawn to queen ('In chess, the small one can become the big one.') and blatantly nods to the 10-year-old heroine's journey of self-discovery.

Among the film's chief pleasures is first-time lead actress Madina Nalwanga, whose personal odyssey from a community dance class in Kampala to the red carpet of Hollywood, mirrors her protagonist's remarkable transformation from impoverished unknown to globe-trotting celebrity.

Queen Of Katwe unfolds largely in chronological order, meeting 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) in the bustle of Kampala's streets in 2007, where she sells maize with her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza).

They return home with money to keep a roof over the heads of their single mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o), older sister Night (Taryn 'Kay' Kyaze) and younger brother Richard (Ivan Jacobo).

By chance, Phiona and Brian meet engineer Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who is spearheading a missionary program, which supplies porridge to local children as they learn to play chess.

Phiona demonstrates natural aptitude for the game and gradually outmanoeuvres her fellow 'pioneers' including Ivan (Ronald Ssemaganda), Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega) and Gloria (Nikita Waligwa).

With help from his schoolteacher wife Sara (Esther Tebandeke), Robert mentors Phiona and inspires the girl to compete at the World Chess Olympiad in Russia.

'Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong,' he tells his protegee.

Queen Of Katwe is distinguished by fine performances including Oscar winner Nyong'o as a proud matriarch, who fears chess might corrupt her little girl and inspire dreams beyond her child's slender grasp.

Oyelowo is a stoic mentor and director Nair and cinematographer Seán Bobbitt capture both the beauty and resolve of a nation scarred by civil war.

Nalwanga and her young co-stars are naturals in front of the camera, and footage of actors with their real-life counterparts during the end credits leaves a large lump in the throat.

RATING: 7.5/10

Wexford People

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