Deftly making the right moves with a stellar cast and underdog overcoming the odds story, Queen of Katwe is an easy charmer. Katwe isn’t a genre game-changer, but it’s too inspiring and enjoyable to bother focusing on its lack of originality.
Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwaga in a mature and composed debut) stumbles onto a chess club run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Chess proves to be a welcome distraction from the realities of living in a Ugandan slum with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave) and younger brothers.
Phiona is a quick study and soon becomes one of Katende’s top competitors. After a few tournament wins, Phiona starts dreaming big — namely becoming a grand master. And with that status comes the potential to help her family on a greater level than selling maize on street corners.
Katende is similarly inspired by his students and finds numerous ways to support and encourage their interest. Oyelowo is outstanding. He was so captivating in Selma and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but this role showcases another side. One that’s more nurturing and playful. It’ll be interesting to see how the supporting roles play out over the Oscar home stretch, but Oyelowo’s performance certainly warrants consideration.
Director Mira Nair exquisitely offers a glimpse of life in Uganda. There’s a strong sense of contentedness despite the harsh living conditions. Nair depicts an interesting contrast where she doesn’t paint this idealistic look at life. Homes are in various states of disrepair, beds and water are luxuries — but it doesn’t define the country either. Nair smartly shows how the well-to-do side does as well with their flashy clothes and disinterest in associating with Katende’s impoverished chess students.
There’s a sense of truth in this depiction that’s evident in all aspects of the film. Nair didn’t set out to make an awards-bait film. The genuineness and lack of emotional manipulation makes Katwe much more authentic. Alex Heffes’ score is tastefully done. It never overwhelms the film and simply provides solid accompaniment to the onscreen events.
At its heart, Katwe is about pursuing dreams even when they seem impossibly out of reach. It’s a moral screenwriter William Wheeler doesn’t constantly hammer throughout the film. Adapting Tim Crothers’ ESPN Magazine article and book, Wheeler lets the lessons flow naturally with a solid emotional balance.
Nair follows the standard sports film guidelines having Katende’s students battle compete against taller, more physically imposing players. Beyond emphasizing the underdog theme, these scenes allow for easy and consistent humor. That’s balanced well during the tougher times for Phiona and her family as the reality of their life threatens to overwhelm her hopes and dreams.
Nyong’o definitely makes a strong case for a second Best Supporting Actress nomination. She has the most complex role as a woman beaten down by life’s disappointments, still willing to sacrifice for her children. To that end, Nyongo’s Nakku has the film’s most fulfilling character arc.
Katwe is only 124 minutes, but the film starts to drag by the second half. Call it the chess overload effect. Unlike say a football or basketball film, chess doesn’t offer a lot of scene variety. There’s no last-minute injury to push through or ball call to overcome. It’s just two players facing against each other at a table.
There’s only so many ways Nair can make that scenario seem fresh. By the fifth or sixth match, they reach a point of diminishing returns long before the big finale. Ditching 15- or 20-minutes would make the film much more effective.
Don’t rush to leave out. The end credits feature a very nice touch where the actors stand alongside their real-life counterparts. I’d love to see that become the norm for films based on real people.
Queen of Katwe is a treat. With a story that works on multiple levels for young and adult audiences and outstanding performances, it’s definitely a family film worth checking out.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures
I’m closing in on 500 movie reviews on the site with something in just about every genre at this point. Most of the review start since I’ve started the site in 2012, but I’ve made some decent headway in backtracking. If you don’t see a film you’d like to see reviewed, give me some suggestions.