VOD film review: Queen of Katwe
Ivan Radford | On 25, Mar 2017
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o
Watch Queen of Katwe online in the UK: Disney+ / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Football. Rugby. Dodgeball. Snowboarding. In the great pantheon of sports movies, chess is the one activity that barely gets a look-in. There have been more movies about dogs playing football than chess. Queen of Katwe, then, is something of a treat.
The film follows the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl from Kampala’s slums. One day, she stumbles upon a chess club, run by missionary worker Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), and unexpectedly discovers she’s a natural.
Based on an ESPN article (by Tim Crothers) and backed by Disney, it’s no surprise that this isn’t City of God. Rather, Queen of Katwe follows the time-honoured tradition of the sports movie. An underdog contest with David Oyelowo as the coach? That’s enough reason to tune in to Mira Nair’s feel-good flick.
Oyelowo, who comes to this off the back of A United Kingdom, confirms himself as one of Britain’s best actors around, able to turn his hand to espionage in Spooks, villainous scientific plans in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and passionate politic speeches in Selma. It’s not just his typically charismatic presence – even the snobby local schools who try to stop the slum kids joining in chess tournaments can’t resist his winning smiles – but his choice of project: this is an actor who, as his star continues to rise, has a clear penchant for films with an inspiring or important message. (The words “national” and “treasure” already spring to mind.)
Here, it’s not the thrill of someone taking someone’s bishop, but the sight of a young girl forging her own future with intelligence and determination that is undeniably uplifting – and Madina Nalwanga is superb as the increasingly confident competitor, who tries to lift herself up from her roots, while still remembering her family. Watching her and her comrades navigate their way around the board and out-think their socially superior rivals – and surprise themselves by doing so – is laugh-out-loud fun.
Lupita Nyong’o matches Nalwanga every step of the way, without ever overshadowing the young star; busy trying to feed the family by selling maize in the street, her performance as the intense, protective and almost bitterly proud matriarch really grabs your heartstrings.
William Wheeler’s screenplay grounds itself in their bond, just as DoP Sean Bobbitt captures the vibrant, grubby backdrop of Kampala. Together, the location and emotions frame the coming-of-age tale with an understated sincerity that moves the familiar narrative away from genre cliches and into the kind of territory suitable for the whole family – this is a story that plays things universal and accessible, and it’s all the better for it. A chess movie starring David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o with a powerful maternal bond at its centre? Checkmate.
Queen of Katwe is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.