Walt Disney Pictures 124 Minutes PG
Can a movie portray chess as an exciting spectator sport? This one tries hard and comes up short, despite the charming and colorful story.
Based on Tim Crothers’ book, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Chess Grandmaster, is the real life story of a 10-year-old Ugandan girl, Phionna Mutesi, who embraces the cerebral board game as her ticket out of poverty and hunger. It was originally reported by Crothers in ESPN the Magazine which how ESPN Productions got involved and why the script tries so hard to make this play like chess is a contact sport.
This movie is very much about educating Americans about a part of the world we virtually known nothing about. Beyond the story, the look of Queen of Katwe is the most striking aspect of this film for Western audiences. The colorful clothes and bright, upbeat music of Central Africa are not images seen on a regular basis. And the cinematography is beautiful, not only of the landscapes but of the personalities in the faces of the people. This movie helps personalize the struggle to keep families together.
Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) certainly knows how to tug the heart stings. In this film there is no problem creating conflict between Phiona (Madina Nalwanga in her first role) and her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). Phiona’s talent for chess is discovered by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a former soccer star now working as a missionary using chess to get kids off the streets by learning how to use their minds.
Nyong’o is a single mother ( This is a Disney film, so there is almost always a parent missing) trying to raise her three children against almost impossible odds. When her daughter’s increasing love of chess takes her away from selling corn on the dusty streets of tiny Katwe to get money for the family, Nyong’o lashes out at her daughter and Coach.
But it is the scenes of the chess tournaments that confound Director Nair. She has Phiona pitted against bigger, older, mostly male opponents, but since no one is kicking a ball or throwing a punch, there is no sense of danger. Nair tries to fabricate tension while watching chess pieces move around a board. We’re told Phiona’s moves are remarkable, but just quick cutting to condense the “action” into a few seconds isn’t a grabber.
David Oyelowo’s portrays of Robert Katende as a smart, kind, generous man who recognizes the genius of Phiona. His quiet, unrelenting dedication to helping Phiona succeed is the stand-out performance in this movie. Lupita Wyong’o’s characterization is confusing. She’s mean, sad, and her changeover from being both and finally compassionate towards her daughter is handled awkwardly in the film. It doesn’t make sense. The pace is slow, as it is in chess. The pieces are all there, but somehow it doesn’t seem as if the pieces fit together.