Queen of Katwe
LFF 2016: David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o ably flank first-timer Madina Nalwanga in a likeable, chess-themed biopic
Given that even the most ardent enthusiast would struggle to sell chess as a spectacle, how do you go about making this most cerebral of board games cinematically interesting? If 2013's Computer Chess went wildly leftfield with its monochromatic depiction of warring software geeks, the contrastingly colourful Queen of Katwe treads a more traditional narrative path – while its answer to the aforementioned question is to feature as little chess as possible.
Beginning in the slums of Katwe, Uganda – a sumptuous tapestry of ragged shanties, hot dust and lively fabrics – it's a film that embraces the chaos and refuses to pity or patronise its characters. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays real-life underdog Phiona Mutesi, an adorable wallflower of a girl who struggles to stand out even in her own family – a unit presided over by the glorious Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o). When she's introduced to chess by local sports coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), Phiona is shown to have a well of untapped potential, propelling her to both national and international competitions.
This Disney production veers away from some but not all rags-to-riches clichés – it resists introducing a superfluous white character for example, but features dialogue that occasionally tends towards the trite. Nevertheless, the integrity of the performances is a source of significant distraction; harnessing the power of understatement, Nalwanga gives a wonderfully engrossing turn helped along by the sensitive camerawork, while an energetic Oyelowo and an estimable Nyong'o provide the classy support. Combining a commercial sensibility with a knack for well-crafted characters, Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) delivers a confidently heart-warming, assuredly entertaining experience, even if the audience will always be able to see several moves ahead.
Screening on Sun 9, Mon 10 and Wed 12 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2016. General release from Fri 21 Oct.