Film: “Queen of Katwe”; Director: Mira Nair; Cast: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o’, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyaze, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Esther Tebandeke and Maurice Kirya; Rating: ***1/2
Packed with hard-hitting life lessons that are seamlessly integrated into the narration, Mira Nira’s “Queen of Katwe” is a formulaically treated film, of a prodigal chess player born in the slums of Katwe in Kampala.
Narrated in a linear manner, it is the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl who used to sell corn on the streets of the impoverished district of Katwe.
The narrative begins in the year 2007, where at the age of 10, she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a football coach who is working in a missionary outpost. In order to engage children who are not keen on football, he introduces them to the board game. Amused and fascinated with chess, Phiona gets attracted to the board and Katende recognising her natural aptitude for the game, mentors her.
“Queen of Katwe” is Phiona’s journey from the ghettoes where she lived, to becoming the master chess player, thereby earning her the title “the Queen.” Her story, though compelling as well as endearing, is meekly captivating on screen.
This biopic, chiselled by screenwriter William Wheeler, based on the book written by Tim Crothers, is simple and straight-forward, punctuated with mild humour. With a predictable flow, the champion’s progress is unravelled on a yearly basis. It is only in the far end of the second act that the flow of sequences seem jumbled and thus confusing.
On the directorial front, the film is a typical Mira Nair’s canvas. Visually, the film is vibrant, bursting with colourful frames in fluid shots that capture every moment flawlessly. While the entire set-up seems genuine and unpretentious, there are a few scenes like; when Phiona’s mother Harriet (Lupita Nyongo’o) goes to sell her cherished dress and in another scene, when their home gets destroyed by the floods, these scenes seem forced and amateurishly tackled.
The real fascination in the film are the actors. They are natural and engaging, especially the kids. Their spontaneity, innocence and exuberance shines in every frame. Madina Nalwanga as Phiona is charming. It is with her eyes and attractive smile that she brings out the finer nuances of her character to the fore.
Equally attractive are Nikita Waligwa as Gloria, Ethan Nazario as Benjamin and Ronald Ssemaganda as Ivan – Phiona’s early contestants and later team mates. How they react when they lose their games at various stages, is worth a watch.
Martin Kabanza as Brian – Phiona’s supporting brother and Tartn Kyaze as Night – Phiona’s older sister have their moments of onscreen glory.
Apart from the kids, it is the ace actors, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o as Robert Katende and Nakku Harriet who add their own grace to elevate their characters.
With excellent production values executed by production designer Stephanie Carroll along with Mobolaji Dawodu’s striking costumes, the visuals captured by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s lens are appealing. And so is Alex Heffes’s lavish score which tugs at your heartstrings and compliments the visuals.
Overall, the film, rich in cultural texture is skilfully and sensitively handled.