Making a chess movie is a tricky move. Your first stumbling block is that, of all sports, this must be one of the most uncinematic – as well as the most baffling for the novice. Even those familiar with the queen’s gambit need a little while to take a look at a board in an apparently tense setup and assess its import for both players.
Plus, on the big screen at least, the dramatis personae are rarely appealing. Traditionally, movie chess is the recourse of the brilliant but socially awkward male, who uses it to communicate when more common methods prove elusive. Such folk can be a struggle to root for, their victories and defeats wrapped up in psychological trauma and solitary childhoods. A case in point premiered at Toronto two years ago: Pawn Sacrifice, a woozily-boring Bobby Fischer biopic with Tobey Maguire sweating over the bishops.
But The Queen of Katwe has a trump card in its disarming heroine. It is easy to cheerlead for Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a pre-teen living in a Katwe, whose life prospects seem to pick up considerably after she finds she has an unexpected knack for seeing eight moves ahead.
She’s coached by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a local minister who runs a kids club when he’s not being the world’s most charming amateur footballer and loving husband. But it’s one of the great joys of the film that he never feels repellently saintly. Indeed as the closing credits indicate, in their charming intro to the real-life characters, the actual man is yet more endlessly generous.
Anyway, the glass ceilings against which shock prodigy must crack her skull are more numerous than those facing the usual aspirant grandmaster. How will she muster the money to compete in a local schools competition – especially given she’s not actually in school? How will she juggle her studies with looking after her kid brother and flogging bread in the market? And how many people really make it when they can neither read nor – after another brother’s accident cleans them out of rent money – have a roof over their head?
Phiona’s other trouble is her mother: a fiercely protective single parent with understandable concerns about how her daughter will cope if and when disappointment comes. She’s played, against type, by Lupita Nyong’o, giving rippling pride and strictness to her first non-CGI role since 12 Years a Slave. The logic of making the character quite so bristly is vindicated in the surprisingly-moving climax.
In fact for what is, in essence, a by-numbers Disney sports flick, there’s endless freshness and vivacity to Mira Nair’s picture – her best in years. The Slumdog settings are eye-poppingly well shot by Sean Bobbitt, and though it’s hard to attest to their authenticity, urban Africa is rarely this intimately drawn. Conflict with snooty public school kids might be a bit blunt, but it’s played for compassionate comedy, and The Queen of Katwe remains quite a challenging prospect for a mainstream mass market audience.
There’s one too many bits of basic chess lingo co-opted into feelgood life mottos, yet the game itself often feels happily incidental to the narrative of the film – so you can understand the need to knit it in somehow. What’s instead key is the earnestness and the exuberance, executed with a conviction that makes this that rare thing: a kids hobby movie where something really is at stake.