Queen of Katwe
dir Mira Nair
scr William Wheeler
prd John Carls, Lydia Dean Pilcher
with Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza, Ronald Ssemaganda, Ethan Nazario Lubega, Taryn "Kay" Kyaze, Esther Tebandeke, Nikita Waligwa, Edgar Kanyike, Ivan Jacobo, Nicolas Levesque
release US 23.Sep.16, UK 21.Oct.16
16/South Africa Disney 2h04
Queen of Katwe
All the right moves: Oyelowo and Nalwanga

oyelowo nyongo nair
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Queen of Katwe While this fact-based film is low on authentic edge, it's bright and engaging enough to hold the audience's interest and deliver a terrific emotional kick. Abject poverty hasn't looked this colourful since Slumdog Millionaire, and this story also addresses big social issues as it follows a handful of likeable characters through an involving odyssey. And the movie is so entertaining that we hardly realise we're learning something.

In the slum village of Katwe in Uganda, pre-teen Phiona (Malwanga) lives with her tenacious mother Harriet (Nyong'o), older sister Night (Kyaze), younger brothers Brian and Ivan (Kabanza and Ssemaganda) and baby Richard. Unable to afford school, she helps her mother sell maize in the local market. Then one day she and her brothers discover the chess club run by social worker Robert (Oyelowo), who notices that Phiona is a prodigy. But can she juggle her family responsibilities, and her need to learn to read, while preparing for a championship match?

Director Nair keeps the tone optimistic. There are dark shadows in this story, from the grim living conditions to a steady stream of class bigotry and sexism. And of course, when Phiona tastes fame as a local champ, she has to deal with her own ego as well. One of the more striking moments is when the ragtag chess team attends its first championship in the city and discovers that they're poor. But Nair keeps all of this gurgling in the background while focussing on happy people living brightly active lives.

Nalwanga makes Phiona easy to root for. Focussed and intelligent, Phiona is a terrific character, and Nalwanga brings her to life beautifully from about 11 to 16 (the age and timeline aren't too precise). Her chemistry with both Oyelowo and Nyong'o has a strong pull to it. There are some stormy moments, but for the most part the actors bring a gentle, warm camaraderie that reflects the unfairness of the world around them.

While general smiliness sometimes feels artificial, the narrative has the ring of truth. Difficult choices abound, as Phiona has to plot a course for her future, Harriet must decide what to do with wild-child Night, Robert grapples with whether to return to civil engineering to support his wife (Tebandeke) and daughter, and so on. All of these questions are resolved in uplifting ways. But it's Phiona's own journey, and her willingness to follow her path in unexpected directions, that's genuinely inspiring.

cert pg themes, violence 15.Sep.16

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© 2016 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall