“Use your mind. Follow your plans. You all will find safe squares.”
I’ve said ‘they don’t make like them like this very often’ so often this year that the meaning of the phrase no longer has value or truth. Queen of Katwe is vintage Disney. It’s full of so much love and tenderness that it will warm even the coldest of hearts. It’s based on a true story and told so well you’ll feel guilty for not having heard it before.
Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) was born in the Uganda slum of Katwe. Her father died when she was three as did her eldest sister shortly after. Her mother, Nakku (Nyong’o), brought her and her three sibling up single handedly with Phiona attending school until she was 9 – at which point her mother could no longer afford the fees and she started selling maize on the streets to help feed her family. Phiona discovered an outreach programme run by Robert Katende (Oyelowo) who taught her how to play chess. Her natural talent for the game soon became clear and would soon become her refuge from the challenges within her life.
Few films are this feelgood. Whilst the story is told in a rather play-by-numbers manner as follows the conventions of a sports movie, siding us with the underdog as we watch them get knocked down then get up again, this is no bad thing. It’s really not a bad thing when it’s told this well. The storytelling provides so much pathos and as a result we truly care about the characters. This is not a world where everything is happy and easy – we regularly see the reality of life for young women like Phiona. At times things do get fraught and there’s the odd shock along the way. The fact this is a Disney movie does provide a degree of comfort during these moments as we feel safe in the hands of the house of mouse.
What is wonderful about the title is that the queen of the title is not quite identified. It could easily be Phiona who is played by Nalwanga with such warmth and grace. She truly feels like a real girl with real problems and a real drive to succeed. Her talents are remarkable and her focus even more so. The queen could just as easily be her mother, played extraordinarily well by Oscar winner Nyong’o. She is a woman who clearly loves her children and is battling to raise them whilst every possible circumstance seems to be against her. She’s a maternal figure to be reckoned with, and one which other character’s reluctance to go against her seems truly understandable! Or perhaps the queen is metaphoric and representative of all the women of Katwe that we meet – women of various smarts and passions who do all they can for the people that they love.
Oyelowo’s performance is also outstanding. He’s truly winning as the man who does so much for so many children who have so little. His grin lights up the screen and the twinkle in his eyes truly sparkles. His surrogate father/mentor relationship with Phiona is completely believable and wholeheartedly endearing. The performances of the ensemble cast of children also require a mention, particularly those of Ssemaganda as Ivan and Waligwa as Gloria, both of whom are utterly delightful.
It’s the epitome of a crowdpleaser – well crafted,intelligently told and with strong performances from all. An under the radar pleasure of a film.
Dir: Mira Nair
Country: USA Year: 2016 Run time: 122 minutes
Queen of Katwe opens in UK cinemas on October 21st.