QUEEN OF KATWE (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Mira Nair
Starring: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o
Review by Gilbert Seah
The film is based on the book entitled “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster” by Tim Crothers. The title itself tells exactly what is going to happen in the Disney film – Disney Studios the one being most famous for making formulaic films. Do we need then to watch this movie?
Apparently a lot of people think so. QUEEN OF KATWE has already been selected to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and the London Film Festival later in November.
QUEEN OF KATWE is directed by Indian American Mira Nair. She is an odd choice for the job having taken on controversial projects like THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST. But she has directed crowd pleasers like MISSISSIPPI MASALA and SALAAM BOMBAY! The public will likely be quite pleased with QUEEN OF KATWE as Nair hits as many right notes as she can in this biographical sports drama.
For sports dramas where the sport involved is football or soccer or boxing, whoever watching the game knows what is happening and who might be winning. The same cannot be said for chess. Even at the crucial moment of a checkmate, by looking at the pieces on the board, no one can tell what is happening. This is a challenge for the director who needs to incite excitement in the game. This is achieved in one vey funny part when one character asks another during a match. “What does it mean?” The answer is jubilantly shouted: “It means she is winning!”
The film begins in 2011 when Phiona is playing in the chess championships. The rest of the film is told mainly in flashback – how Phiona has reached this point in her life and the film carries on from here.
Once can hardly complain about Nair’s direction or William Wheeler’s script. The film is thorough to include everything that an underdog has to go through to become a champion. The girl Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and her family are evicted form her home; Phiona comes into conflict with her uneducated mother (Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong’o) who understands little of the importance of education; she loses an important game; she learns humility etc. etc. etc. By the time the film gets to the last reel with the climatic crucial chess game, the story has stretched out far too long. But for many who love getting their right buttons pushed. QUEEN OF KATWE will likely have them reaching for their tissues. David Oyelowo plays her coach Robert Katende, who always has the right advice for everyone and cannot do the wrong thing.
The best and most important part of the film is the one in which Phiona grows too proud after winning a game and decides she is too special to wash the vegetables for her mother. Her mother pulls her out of bed in the important scene screaming that maybe Phiona needs her feet washed as well.
The film ends well with each actor standing beside the real character their portrayed. There are no photos here, real people with real actors.
The film will be screened with in conjunction with a delightful and inventive animated short called INNER WORKINGS (director Leo Matsuda) – a sort of alternative take on INSIDE OUT. Running just over 5 minutes., this terribly funny film outshines QUEEN OF KATWE. But QUEEN won the runner-up prize for the People’s Choice Award at the recent TIFF.