Queen of Katwe Movie Review
A beautifully made and wonderfully acted drama that will make you feel good from beginning to checkmate, Queen of Katwe is a true-life story of slums and chess that, while uplifting in the way Disney movies tend to be, feels more real and earnest than most similar “sports” dramas the studio has put out in recent years.
Directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), is a rich, vivid film that presents its rags-to-riches tale in a way that doesn’t make you roll your eyes and that thrives on some very strong performances by its talented cast. It’s not so artistically brave to be anywhere close to groundbreaking, but it is a solid, entertaining piece of filmmaking nonetheless.
Madina Nalwanga stars as Phiona Mutesi, a teenage girl who can barely afford the food on her back but who, with the assistance of those around her, learns to play chess--and more importantly, discovers that she kicks some major ass at the game. Nalwanga, in her debut, is terrific and demonstrates an unexpected natural ability for a first-time performer.
Nalwanga is supported by two extremely talented actors--David Oyelowo (Golden Globe nominee for Selma) and Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave). Both give great performances that rise above what you’d expect from a Disney drama, with Nyong’o delivering the film’s best performance as Phiona’s immensely stubborn and passionate mother. She commands every scene she’s in.
Queen of Katwe’s weakness is that even though it feels like a more realistic Disney drama than most, it’s still a Disney drama, and Nair appears to hold back from getting too gritty or dirty. Nair hits on a variety of conflicts that occur over the several-year span the movie covers, but they disappear just as quickly as they appear. In one scene, Phiona’s youngest brother nearly dies in a flood, but by the next, you realize that it was shown simply to demonstrate that yes, they still live in the slums. Her older, rebellious sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) shows up throughout the film for a few seconds at a time to cause some chaos, but her character is so undeveloped you don’t really care. And just when the movie starts to hint that Phiona, having tasted luxury and life outside the slums, has started to look down on her family and social status, the issue is resolved and the story moves on.
Queen of Katwe isn’t perfect, and as dramas go it’s a lighthearted one, but thanks to some very good performances by its three leads and strong direction by Mira Nair, the movie establishes itself as one of the better films of the year. I should end this review with a chess pun, but I won’t. Because I can’t think of any.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.