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Even those with a limited knowledge of the game of chess will know that the queen rules the roost. Making an astonishing acting debut, the strongest piece of Mira Nair’s joyous Queen of Katwe is Madina Nalwanga. Playing Ugandan prodigy Phiona Mutesi, the charming newcomer lights up the screen from first to last with a radiant smile and extraordinarily mature performance. Her embodiment of a girl plucked from the slums of Kampala and catapulted to international fame by tactical mastery of a game of strategy is classic Disney fare but this story of triumph over adversity aims right for the heartstrings and gives them a good plucking.
Nalwanga is but one jewel in the Queen of Katwe’s crown. Opening at an all-important match in the Ugandan capital in 2011, Phiona is reassured by inspirational coach Robert Katende: “You belong here.” It is the calming, charismatic delivery of David Oyelowo that sooth nerves. From here Nair tells the story of Phiona’s rise to this end game and her mentor is with her every step of the way, through decisive moves, both literal and figurative, and the hardships thrown at a girl growing up in squalor.
Curiosity and a rumbling stomach draws Phiona to the Katwe chess club for the first time several years earlier. The lure of a warm cup of porridge and an intriguing game played with carved figures on a checkered board are too much to resist. Just as a queen needs support from all manner of pieces, Nalwanga is surrounded by a uniformly tremendous group of teammates. Her brother, Richard (played at differing ages by Ivan Jacobo and Nicolas Levesque), and roguish comedian Benjamin (Ethan Nazario Lubega) are standouts, the pair sharing one of the best secret handshakes you will ever see.
Anyone who raises money by playing football to enable his youth group to attend a posh chess tournament must be a good egg and there isn’t a bad bone in Katende’s body. Oyelowo’s cheeky, adoring affection of wife Sara (Esther Tabandeke), is echoed by a sincerity and warmth of interaction with his young ‘pioneers’ and the British actor’s turn is effortlessly charming. The other major driving force behind Phiona’s coming-of-age is her mother. Lupita Nyong’o, in her most substantial role since 12 Years A Slave, is worthy of very special mention.
Fiery, sassy and principled, she plays a woman widowed at a young age, left to take care of a brood of children under the hardest of circumstances. She does so with a touching fervour through eyes that betray love, pride, determination and desperation. She is terrific. Nair gets the very finest from her cast and although like Phiona we can see a number of moves ahead, the director’s graceful, heartfelt retelling of this miraculous story makes Queen of Katwe
a wondrously uplifting film.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens