Chess changes circumstances.
So can cross country, horse racing, baseball, football or any sport under the sun—leave it to Disney’s “Inspiring True Story” department to fashion it into a life-changing factor. There is a pattern across all productions as well: competent acting, fair visual flourishes and a straightforward narrative that began with hardship and ended in merriment.
That said, “Queen of Katwe” still entrances me. A display of brand loyalty? Maybe. Because acting luminaries Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo are in the same space? Plausible. Or it’s just the result of how, during assembly, the film introduces modest-but-welcoming spins such sparing us from a “white savior” complex and delivering performances at a level more engrossing than expected.
Spared we are, then, from seeing slightly xenophobic, culturally-fish-out-of-water scenes since the journey of Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is localized—perspective and understanding-wise. Whatever the reason Phiona needs to depart the Katwe slums in Uganda’s capital is her own, as opposed to having a foreigner pointing it out; there is a “first-hand account” effect as we see Phiona reach her goal.
I don’t know if experienced filmmaker Mira Nair intended this as foreshadowing, but Phiona has owned a crown long before she encounters the chessboard. It’s routine for Phiona to “don” a bucket of maize on her head, hoping to earn some shillings for her strong-willed mother, Harriet (Nyong’o), and the rest of the family. Nalwanga’s eyes, despite their fragile lines, have a surplus of wisdom that Nair wisely focuses on—a simple-but-competent feature that adds more intensity to the chess matches, which thankfully was edited based on emotion so non-chess people can enjoy, and demonstrates that the character is always working out the next move toward a better place in life.
In her acting debut Nalwanga effortlessly forges a link with the cast members—be it in the presence of two Oscar-recognized stars or the youngsters that make up the chess academy of the character Robert (Oyelowo). The young Ugandan actress has just one opportunity to showcase her dramatic prowess—the majority of them are reserved for the always-capable Nyong’o—but Nalwanga’s non-prominent charm makes that moment all the more heart-rending. Losing a game of chess is just so to many, but to Phiona it equals to a door closed. Nalwanga ensures that you can hear the slam.
Just as extraordinary as Phiona’s ability to see eight moves ahead is William Wheeler’s telegraphic writing. I don’t play chess, but I do get the sense of being a prodigy because Wheeler has crafted the end of a scene right when it begins. Although predictability doesn’t render the reign of “Queen of Katwe” as outstanding, surrounding the film are the most capable of denizens in the tech department including Barry Alexander Brown’s therapeutic editing and Sean Bobbitt’s vibrant photography. A consistent sense of serenity and vividness—even when characters are at their direst—offset the simplification and romanticizing of Phiona’s life.
Nair’s effort to lock the film a spot in Disney’s feel-good catalog prevents “Queen of Katwe” from being the next “Slumdog Millionaire,” in style and tone, when it could easily have been. While not going Danny Boyle in style and tone (or playing blitz chess, to throw in an appropriate analogy), you won’t come out of the film with a frown.
And I’d say a change of mood to your day qualifies as a victory.
Queen of Katwe
Madina Nalwanga (Phiona Mutesi), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakku Harriet), David Oyelowo (Robert Katende)
Directed by: Mira Nair (“Vanity Fair”)
Written by: William Wheeler (“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”), Tim Crothers (based on the ESPN Magazine article and the book by)
Cinematography by: Sean Bobbitt (“The Place Beyond the Pines”)
124 min., PG
Release date: Sept. 30
7 out of 10.