For a film that’s competing with lots of big new releases in UK cinemas this week, there has been rather too much emphasis on how radical Queen Of Katwe is for a Disney film. Adapted from Tim Crothers’ 2012 article The Queen Of Katwe: A Story Of Life, Chess and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream Of Becoming A Grandmaster, Mira Nair’s winsome sports underdog movie just happens to be set entirely in Uganda.
In the titular Kampala slum, selfless youth ministry coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) introduces chess to the local kids by offering free food at his classes. One pupil in particular, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), proves to be a natural and Robert encourages her to pursue her passion to an international level over a number of years, despite the objections of her protective mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o).
The result is surely one of the year’s most under-appreciated gems, which soars in all of the areas in which its forerunners fell down. For instance, where 2014’s similarly Disneyfied true story Million Dollar Arm failed by sticking too closely to the true story, leading to the preposterous scene where Jon Hamm’s baseball scout gets the idea to go to India by watching Susan Boyle’s entire Britain’s Got Talent audition, Nair finds a ring of authenticity in the story and grasps it tightly.
The best sports movies raise the character stakes above the outcome of a game and so it goes here, as Phiona looks for solutions and tries to anticipate what will happen next in her own unstable living situation while trying to qualify for an all-important financial stipend for competing. For those in the audience who aren’t up on kings and Kasparovs, the film doesn’t dumb down or sensationalise the game, but makes it accessible and cinematic for viewers of all ages in a way that comparable biopics like 2014’s Pawn Sacrifice didn’t.
Although the film gets some hefty metaphorical mileage out of a pawn’s journey to become a queen, and even leans on that a little too heavily in some scenes, the game is not so important as what it means for Phiona. Nalwanga is fascinating to watch in all of her stoicism and vulnerability and she carries the underdog story effortlessly.
Phiona is also surrounded by an adorable supporting cast of characters who have bought into this game as much as she has, leading to a lot of tears when they come off worse. In particular, young Nikita Waligwa steals scenes and hearts as Gloria even before she’s pitted against an opponent who is several years older and at least three feet taller than her, with amusing results.
On the grown ups’ side, Oyelowo and Nyong’o are wonderful too and it feels as if they’ve each been waiting for a starring vehicle like this for some time. As played by Oyelowo, Robert is an irrepressible spring of warmth and wisdom, while Nyong’o, in her first live-action role since her harrowing, Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years A Slave, plays a fierce single mother whose temper is as formidable as her beauty. There’s no contrived conflict between these two characters, who are each out for what’s best for Phiona, and both prove to be disarmingly generous in their own way.
In the slums, the kids can practice with bottle caps on chequered blankets when they’re not using the beaten up and mismatched sets at Robert’s classes, and the eventual progression to polished and pristine pieces at competition level makes for a stark contrast with the circumstances from which Phiona and her fellow contenders have emerged.
More than once, Nair cuts from a nice spread at a competition buffet, to Harriet eking out a living for her family back in Katwe, but this always serves to highlight the scale of privilege in Kampala, and underline the stakes of Phiona’s access to that privilege. While taking poverty seriously, the film is kept aloft by sheer, irresistible good feeling, supported by Sean Bobbitt’s vibrant cinematography and Alex Heffe’s gently uplifting score.
For all of the talk of how unusual and radical it is, Queen Of Katwe is a Disney movie, right down to its bones. Where other chess-centric movies have failed to convince us of the game’s stakes or cinematic qualities, this is eight moves ahead of anything like it, boasting strong performances across the board and a hard-earned happy ending. It’s deliberately paced over its 124 minutes, but it’s a precious and refreshing drama that finds universal appeal in the specifics of its sports underdog story.
Queen Of Katwe is in UK cinemas now.