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Film review: Queen of Katwe

Film & TV

Queen of Katwe is based on the heart-warming true story of a Ugandan girl from the slums of Kampala who becomes a chess grandmaster.

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The actors are superb, the colours of the clothing and landscape are brilliant, and the overall experience is uplifting – yet the film pulls no punches in its depiction of slum squalor and social inequality.

Director Mira Nair has captured the heart and soul of the Ugandan people, while writer  William Wheeler has created a script with moving, thoughtful dialogue.

Two-time Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo (Selma) is the charismatic and admirable Robert Katende, who turns down an engineering job to continue working with poor children. He is compassionate and caring, and the children feel very attached to him as the chess coach.

His newest student, and eventual chess champion, Phiona Mutesi, is played by Madina Nalwanga, who gives a performance filled with strength, determination and emotion while retaining the vulnerability of an adolescent.

Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is gorgeous as Nakku Harriet, Phiona’s widowed mother, embodyng the spirit of strength in adversity, while Taryn Kiaze plays older sister Night, who chases money and an escape from the slums on the back of a man’s motor scooter, only to be forced to return, pregnant and unsupported.

All the children who join the Pioneer Chess team are terrific; in fact, the entire cast give extraordinary performances.

Who would have thought that filming chess tournaments could be gripping? In the context of Phiona’s rapid rise to grandmaster, they are filled with tension.

Queen of Katwe champions social justice and, in a country recovering from war, it shows the stark contrast of life in the slums compared with the lives of those from wealthy areas.

Audiences are given an insight into the hardship and exploitation in an African ghetto, but also the camaraderie and essential goodness of humans. Chess metaphors are used throughout, and some significant philosophical and sociological questions are raised.

Queen of Katwe is a beautiful film: it is about real people and how much better the world could be if only those with the power and money would adopt an attitude like Katende’s and provide the resources for all young people to realise their dreams.

The credits reveal the real people alongside their actor counterparts, and it is a nice touch to see how the children of such a poor family, given an opportunity, can go on to achieve in school and life.

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