Queen of Katwe review: This feel-good film is Mira Nair's most interesting since The Namesake
If you’re looking for a well meaning, inspirational feel good film meant for every member of your family — basically all the qualities of a Disney movie — you can’t go wrong with Queen of Katwe. If you also happen to be a fan of Mira Nair then you’ll be glad to know this is her most interesting film since The Namesake.
Based on the book by Tim Crothers, Queen of Katwe takes us right into the utter nightmare of a poverty struck slum in Uganda. Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives with her mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) in an unglamorous shack with her older sister and two brothers. Their source of income is selling corn out in the streets, begging vehicle owners by tapping at their windows. Phiona’s life changes when she attends a chess club run by a missionary named Robert (David Oyelowo). She discovers that she has a knack for the sport, and Robert helps hone her skills, teaching her various moves, maneuvering through the setback of Phiona not being able to read books or instructions. This being a Disney movie, it’s not hard to figure out what happens next.
But even though it’s a predictable and clichéd story of a poor person against all odds, it’s Phiona’s journey that keeps the viewer interested. The film is peppered with little tearjerker moments to maintain just the right balance for emotional manipulation.
But these emotionally manipulative scenes are directed well enough by Nair to not make them seem melodramatic, but simply heartfelt. There’s a scene where Phiona sees snow for the first time through the Moscow airport — without really spoon-feeding us the information it’s made pretty clear that this girl who was never expected to leave her slum her whole life has finally seen the beauty of the outside world. Later, when her competitors seem to be smarter than her, the vision of this wonderful outside world quickly turns into a darker place, and there’s a hint in Phiona’s mannerisms that she wants to escape and go back home rather than lose.
But the best moments in the film come during the few chess matches where Nair ratchets up the tension — once again even if you can predict the outcome they still contain enough smarts to not make you look away from the screen. A lot of credit goes to the performance of Nalwanga who pretty much disappears into her role, as does Nyong’o whose character serves as a wonderful traction for Phiona to win the chess matches. The stakes couldn’t be higher in Phiona’s case — she has everything to lose in a place where her opponents could simply go back home to continue their lives.
Being a true story adds the extra levity to the film, and the fact that it leaves you with a hopeful sentiment on things in Uganda improving bit by bit is a nice thought to have when you leave the theater. Stay for the end credits because Alex Heffes’ wonderful soundtrack that features native Ugandan instruments beautifully complements the visuals on the screen, which may leave you with a moist tear duct or two.