That much-loved, life-affirming subgenre, the underdog sports movie, rarely steers off course, sticking to a long established formula that seeks to uplift and inspire. Queen of Katwe, embodying all the upbeat inspiration of the very best Disney stories, is a true underdog drama. Accordingly, it clings tight to the genre’s archetypal beats. However, based as it is on truth, this story of a young chess prodigy living in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, is imbued with a quiet, heartening realism. Together with some rousing performances from its leads, Queen of Katwe gets away with its heavy reliance on convention – a refreshingly joyful underdog story where something is genuinely at stake.
Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!) conducts her film at an expert pace; despite a lengthy run-time ill suited to the family-friendly narrative, Queen of Katwe is efficiently structured. While it tells a story laden with hardship, Nair’s film rarely halts to wallow at its darker moments, managing to be compelling, captivating and entertaining throughout. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona, a 10-year-old girl living in the slum of Katwe. After happening upon a missionary program chess club run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), Phiona cautiously begins to learn and excel at the game. Soon, Phiona finds herself entering competitions and tournaments – small escapes from her days selling maize on the streets of Katwe – dreaming of a life away from poverty for herself, her siblings and her mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o).
Queen of Katwe is replete with all the familiar characters, narrative turns and plot devices you’d expect from any underdog tale: Phiona’s accomplishments in chess are countered with the escalating hardships of her family life in Katwe; While “Coach” Katende fights to steer Phiona toward victory, he must face moral dilemmas and responsibilities of his own; Nair relies heavily on montage and crosscutting to plot out the high and lows of her story. These are beats recognisable in everything from The Bad News Bears to The Mighty Ducks. However, Queen of Katwe transplants a familiar narrative to the dangerous, poverty-stricken streets of Kampala and, accordingly, tells a story that both maintains convention and breaks with it, feeling both refreshingly authentic and comfortably familiar at the same time.
While the dialogue here is often on-the-nose and fraught with a little too many tiresome chess-themed metaphors, Queen of Katwe’s fantastic leads elevate occasional moments of hackneyed melodrama to genuinely heart-warming storytelling. Nyong’o turns in a stirring performance, radiating sadness and joy in equal measure as a mother caught between poverty, responsibility and a dream to see her children succeed. Oyelowo is immensely likable as Phiona’s coach, injecting subtlety and nuance into a relatively one-dimensional role. Madina Nalwanga achieves an admirable debut as Phiona, a wonderful, understated performance layered with quiet emotion and colourful joy.
Queen of Katwe plays to its strengths by focusing on the surrounding drama of Phiona’s story and not the game itself – for all its quiet tensions, the excitement of chess doesn’t translate all so well to the big screen. An ESPN co-production, this is a sports story that follows the ups and downs of wins and losses without spending too much time on the sport. Consequently, Queen of Katwe packs a lot of story into its run-time, dealing with complex social issues without getting too bogged down in discourse. For such a simple, familiar story, then, there’s a lot to take away. As long as you don't concern yourself too much with convention or cliché, Queen of Katwe has the power to educate, inspire and entertain.