The incredible true story of the young girl in Nigeria who in circumstances which would leave most of us curled up in a ball crying our eyes out learned to be one of the best young chess players in the world. In the slums, and there are no better words for the place where she lived, this girl learned to master a game which leaves a lot of people dumbfounded.
I have a massive soft spot for the game of chess. The reason is because it was the one bonding thing I had with my Dad when I was growing up. In that complicated relationship the lessons he gave me in chess turned out to be one of the defining moments in our Father Son being. I have four brothers and we all know how to play chess, it was the least violent game that was played in our house, a house filled with martial arts weapons, and the one game where one of us could walk away from without massive bruises or a broken limb. Back in the 80’s that was perfectly acceptable but today we’d be put into care. Anyway. So Queen of Katwe brought up a whole lot of memories from back then. It’s only now two days after seeing the film that it had to do with a lot more than chess. I’ll write about that some other time as now I have to critic, and I like to critic.
The story focuses on a few different people in Katwe, a town in Nigeria, a town you’d probably never want to visit. But the main character of the film is Phiona who learns to play chess through one of the missions in the area. Her natural ability shines through almost straight away and she has a hunger for the game. Her family life is not the best as her Mother is widowed and she has four young children to support. They live in a battered shack and can’t make ends meet. As Phiona grows more to love the game of chess her Coach will do anything he can to make sure that she gets the chance to explore a future outside of the slum. This is a true life story that just melted my heart.
It’s a rare time that we reviewers leave a cinema and are all effected by the emotion of the film, but at least four people, including myself, left that auditorium in the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin and we were wiping away the tears. I did see a few other people, I won’t name names, with red eyes from where they were crying through the movie but managed to get themselves together before starting a conversation. The film stirs up a wonderful amount of emotions through the running time, you will laugh, and you’ll cry, you will cheer on the team, and worry about their futures. I have to give the writer and director credit for this, although based on a real life story it’s sometimes hard to translate that to the screen, there is no trouble doing that in this case.
The cast as well deserve huge credit for taking what on paper could be a dull story and turning it into a magical real life story of hope and determination. Madina Malwanga as Phiona is majestically natural and is able to storm into your heart straight away as a girl who sees chess as being an escape. David Oyelowo, who was robbed of his Oscar last year in Selma, stars as the Coach who spots in Phiona a young talent that will soon beat him at the board game. Oyelowo is subtle and strong, playing a man who wants to give back to the community while hoping to move his family to a better life. As Phiona’s Mother and playing a character who could get beat down a thousand times and get back up every time, the truly inspiring character of the film, is Lupita Nyong’o, If you thought that her role in 12 Years a Slave deserved an Oscar then this should at least get her the nomination. The rest of the children in the cast all deserve huge props for their roles as they show talent and maturity way beyond their years.
You cannot miss this film, it’s a story that will make you thankful for whatever your lot is in life, if you think you are being hard done by in the world watch this film. Wonderfully acted, sympathetically directed and written, and giving us more hope about life than anything else on a screen this year. I hope that you take the time to go to a cinema and enjoy this emotionally filled beautiful film. Do not miss!
Director: Mira Nair
Writers: William Wheeler (screenplay), Tim Crothers (based on the ESPN Magazine article and book by)
Stars: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o