Mira Nair, 124 mins, starring: Lupita Nyong'o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza
Chess is a very obvious metaphor for life in Mira Nair's uplifting new drama. If you know how to fight and can plot several moves ahead, you can thrive whatever your background. The game can help you to find the “safe square” in which you’re out of harm’s way. It’s also a means of righting social wrongs. In chess, “the small one can become the big one.”
The “small one” here is Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a kid growing up with her siblings and her protective and moralistic mother (Lupita Nyong’o) in Katwe, a shanty town on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda. The father is gone and the family ekes out a living by selling maze. The children can’t even play football.
They know that if they injure themselves, there will be no money to pay the medical bills. That’s why local coach Robert (David Oyelowo) encourages them to take up chess. Phiona can’t read or write but she is a natural at the game.
This Disney-made film is based on a true story. We know from the very first moves how the game is going to end. There will be adversity and heartache along the way but the little pawn with nothing will turn into a great queen. It is a thoroughly heartwarming story in which you’re rooting so hard for the heroine that you scarcely notice how contrived some of Nair’s dramatic gambits really are.
In its early scenes, set in the muddy streets of Katwe, the film has an energy and cheerfulness that rekindles memories of Slumdog Millionaire. The kids are nothing if not resilient. Nair elicits fine performances from the adults too. Lupita Nyong’o is strangely youthful to be playing a mother with teenage kids but she brings exactly the right mix of ferocity and tenderness to her role.
Oyelowo is equally impressive as the mentor of the “pioneers” (as the chess players are called), a qualified engineer who has come from nothing himself and sacrifices his own career to help the kids.
As she has shown in many previous films, whether low budget affairs like Monsoon Wedding or big costume dramas like her adaptation of Vanity Fair, Nair has a flair for ensemble dramas full of energy, conspiracy and comic incident. One of the highlights here is when coach Robert takes the kids to play in the Father Grimes School Championship.
They’re up against some of the most privileged children in the country, the “Richie Rich city boys with gold watches” who’ve had everything in their lives handed to them. Some of the Katwe players are intimidated by the sheer size of their opponents. One lets out a prolonged wail or grief when she allows herself to be caught in checkmate.
Nair even manages to make Phiona’s chess games seem intensely dramatic. She includes plenty of close-ups of the players’ faces, shots of the clock ticking away, images of chess pieces being maneuvered around the board and cutaways to the audience.
There are large dollops of sentimentality in the storytelling. Before the endgame can be reached, Phiona and her family endure many reversals. She has a beautiful older sister whose way out of poverty is to run off with a flashy man on a motorbike. (We know the affair is going to end badly.) The mother can’t pay both the rent and her injured son’s medical bills.
On trips abroad to Sudan and Moscow, Phiona has the inevitable crises of confidence. She questions her right, as a kid from the slums, to be playing with all these affluent city slicker types, some of whom are even given stipends to support their chess careers. The film follows in a similar groove to that of Million Dollar Arm (2014), an equally upbeat and wholesome sports yarn also produced by Disney about cricket-loving Indian kids trying to make the grade in US baseball.
Whatever setbacks Phiona faces at the chess board or at home, we know that not too much harm will befall her. She will always find the right move in the end. The storytelling may be schematic and predictable but that doesn’t make it any the less rousing.
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