One wouldn’t expect to find a chess prodigy hidden in the slums of Katwe, Uganda. Yet that’s exactly what happened when Phiona Mutesi happened upon Robert Katende’s Pioneers on an afternoon that would ultimately change her life.
There is a lot to enjoy about Mira Nair‘s new film “Queen of Katwe.” From the inspirational story that manages to never feel emotionally manipulative, to the outstanding performances, this is a film that should shine bright. Which is why it almost feels wrong to point out the imperfections.
Beginning with the positive, David Oyelowo is perfect as the optimistic Robert Katende. The devoted husband and father almost oozes pure hope from his pores. Oyelowo is so well-suited to the role that it could have been written for him. Even though Katende’s life has been fraught with challenges, he always looks for opportunities rather than focusing on the setbacks. Oyelowo could have easily overacted the part, and yet he doesn’t. This isn’t particularly award-caliber work, but it does allow him to showcase the talent that will surely garner him Oscar nominations in the not-too-distant future.
Lupita Nyong’o has had an interesting course since her Oscar-winning performance in “12 Years a Slave.” While she seems to be everywhere, she has only appeared in a couple of films, and only as a vocal performer. What she does as Phiona’s mother Harriet begs the question, “Why isn’t she in everything?” There are aspects of Harriet’s role that feel clichéd, but Nyong’o brings weight and heart to the world-weary widow and mother of five. She conveys so much with just a look or a groan. It’s unfortunate that the script didn’t give her more to work with.
It’s hard to believe this is the first film role ever for newcomer and star Madina Nalwanga. She isn’t necessarily exceptional as Phiona, but she is convincing as a kid who has grown up with no reason to hope for a future. Phiona can’t go to school because her mother can’t afford to send her. Public education in that part of the world doesn’t exist the way we know it. Phiona and her brother instead have to sell corn in the streets to help their mother put food on the table. Nalwanga does a good job of demonstrating the worries and fears of a teenage girl in true poverty. She is afraid to hope too much, gets anxious and lacks confidence in her own abilities. She goes through a bit of a rebellious phase. But ultimately, she wants a better life, not only for herself, but for her family.
And the notion of family is a central theme to “Queen of Katwe,” which makes Nair a good choice to direct. Her best films all have strong family relationships. These families are flawed and connections are sometimes tenuous, and that’s what makes them so great to watch. Nair translates her prior experience well into Katwe. Harriet struggles with all the challenges of raising children without a father. Those challenges are so much deeper than financial. She faces the burden of imparting morals and values while watching her oldest daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze), march confidently down the wrong path. Nair draws out the pain and the triumphs.
Family is also portrayed in a more unconventional way with Robert’s band of Pioneers, the slum children who magically never grow up over the film’s four year timeline. These children come from all around the sprawling village, brought together by their shared circumstances and by the magic of chess.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt deserves plenty of praise for his work. Bobbitt has an impressive filmography and what he does with “Katwe” is merely another example of why he’s so good. He turns the slums of Katwe into another living, breathing character in the story. It is both exciting and terrifying. It is full of life and possibility and death and dismay. Katwe is determined to hold Phiona back, but also gave her the tools she would need to escape its clutches.
But “Queen of Katwe” is not without its flaws. First, there are some pacing problems. Parts of the story feel rushed while others drag a little too much. The script by William Wheeler has some beautiful moments and some inspiring dialogue. It also has a lot of expected moments and flat dialogue. There are pieces of the story that go nowhere. There are wasted sequences and undeveloped side plots. Some of the Pioneer children are content with being undefined shadows instead of fleshed out people. Even with a 124-minute runtime it feels like they should have done more.
The biggest issue with the film, however, is the ease with which each character moves through conflict. Even when things reach a truly bleak crescendo, the resolution is glossed over quickly in favor of happier scenes. It is a disservice to the real people who lived this story. It is also unusual for a live-action Disney film where danger, risk and potential consequences are frequently given due consideration. Here, it sometimes feels like the worst that could happen is that everyone goes back to exactly where they were before everything started. In which case, they’re no worse off.
In a lovely scene, Robert tells Phiona, “Sometimes the place you’re used to is not the place you belong.” These are words of wisdom that Disney would do well to pay attention to. Obviously, they should never stop bringing audiences the inspirational true story. But, perhaps, they’ve gotten so comfortable with showing the happy endings they have forgotten that the real heart of the story comes from the struggle, and not from the outcome.
This is a charming film, which makes it difficult to dislike. Even frustrating flaws are nearly forgotten with a bit of well-placed humor or another moment of Nyong’o saying everything while saying nothing. It isn’t the best inspirational biopic we’ve gotten from Disney, but it’s enjoyable. You can’t help but smile as the credits start to roll.
“Queen of Katwe” is distributed by Disney and will be in select cities Sept. 23. It will be released everywhere Sept. 30.