The Queen of Katwe (PG) – A Preview

Chess playing in an outlying township of Uganda seems an unlikely topic for a film, not least when it falls to Disney to make the movie, but director Mira Nair has adapted the true story of Phiona Mutesi with sensitivity, imagination and an irresistible charm.

The Queen of Katwe is based on Tim Crother’s book about an extraordinary young girl from one of Uganda’s worse slums, who discovers a love, and unfathomable gift, for the game of chess. Crother is a sportswriter by trade, and much of his book’s energy and pace has been injected into this faithful retelling of a truly uplifting story. David Oyelowo does a marvellous job of giving saintly chess club organiser Robert Katende substance, while Lupita Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother with a heart-breaking combination of vulnerability and steely resolve. It is, however, Madina Nalwanga’s remarkable film debut that is the fulcrum on which the film rests. Her performance is a delight from beginning to end, managing to be joyous, yet determined, ambitious yet compassionate.

While this is a feel good film that celebrates the indomitable human spirit, it’s also an unflinching examination of Uganda’s abject poverty and inequality – how basic shelter, schooling, and medical treatment are for so many, obscenely unobtainable. Nair juggles this challenging subject matter within the constraints of a family film with subtlety and skill, leaving a lasting impression of hope, where there could have been anger, and laughter where there could have been despair.

By David Vass