By Jack Dignan
With Oscar season steadily approaching, Australia, like every year, is finally getting all the potential Oscar movies. We’re finally seeing the releases of all of them, many of which have been out for a while in the US and some of which still aren’t coming out here until February. Amidst the many Oscar movies we’re about to receive, this is the one film that I didn’t know an awful lot about. I’d seen the poster, and a friend had told me the general gist of it, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Was it another Oscar movie? It was coming out in the right time frame. I was wiling to find out, and while it’s not going to end up being an award winner, what I got was a rather great movie.
Queen of Katwe is the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl living in the poorer areas of Uganda with her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings. She’s making do with what she’s got, but with no education, very little food and a house that they’re struggling to keep up with the rent for, things aren’t going well. That’s when Phiona meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who introduces her to the game of chess. She excels at the game, making her way up through the ranks and winning several competitions. With the help of Robert, Phiona tries to rise up and become a master, hoping to change her life for the better.
The true story behind Queen of Katwe, which I wasn’t at all familiar with prior to watching the film, is inspiring and uplifting. It’s the story of a young girl who’s given an opportunity bigger than she could ever dream of, and she seizes it. We watch her journey as she rises up from a life of poverty and makes her way into bigger and bigger chess competitions, gaining more popularity. She’s very easy to connect with and sympathize for, and her journey is an inspirational, highly emotional one that moved me and will undoubtedly move all that watch it.
I do love a good underdog story. It’s hard not to. Seeing the little guy come out on top is always a joy, and this applies for Queen of Katwe. Phiona has very little to lose. The odds are completely and utterly against her, yet she powers on. She does her best, her attitude almost always positive. However, the film does have its fair share of familiarities in terms of narrative structure. It plays out pretty much exactly how you’d expect it to go, and the basis of the plot has been done in several other films. The story itself is fun and new, but it’s told in a generic, been there-done that sort of way.
From time to time, the film also has a tendency to drag and repeat itself. Phiona is just going from chess tournament to chess tournament for a lot of the film, and don’t get me wrong, I was definitely interested in what was happening, but it can all get very repetitive. There’s no montaging through anything. We see almost everything that goes on, and it slows the pacing down a lot, particularly in the second act, which felt as though it went on for a much longer period of time than it actually did.
Thankfully, the film is just so wonderful and fun that I was happy to watch it, and it helps when the performances are as good as they are. David Oyelowo, like he always is, is fantastic. He works as a father figure to Phiona, who’s grown up with just a mother, and he’s great. Lupita Nyong’o is also excellent, giving an emotional and honest performance as Phiona’s mother. The real star of this movie, however, is Madina Nalwanga. This is her first feature film, and she kills it. She gives it her absolute all, and she delivers. If this kid doesn’t go on to wonderful places in life, I will be disappointed. She is excellent.
To sum up, Queen of Katwe is an interesting, inspiring and uplifting true story of a child whose determination and skill helps to get her a better life. With excellent performances, especially from the film’s breakout lead star, and an exciting, if not familiar narrative, this is another Disney hit… so long as you don’t look at its box-office numbers.
3 1/2 Stars