Life-affirming tale of triumph over adversity

Queen of Katwe (PG)

“The small one can be the big one in chess. That’s what I like about it.” So says a character in this enthralling film about a chess prodigy, based on a true story. The game becomes more and more a metaphor for life as the film goes on. The almost effortless talent of Phiona Mutesi for it acts as a ticket for her out of the poverty-stricken milieu in which she lives with her mother and family in the back streets of Katwe, Uganda.

But will the 12 pieces of silver turn out to be a crown of thorns? Such a theme is touched upon in a telling scene where she blows on one of the trophies she’s won and then proceeds to rub it down so she can use it as a mirror. (The hovel they live in doesn’t have an actual mirror.)

“Don’t knock your king over so quickly,” her missionary coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) advises her in another scene when she’s experiencing doubts about her ability to compete at the game’s highest level. Just as a ‘small one’ can become a ‘big one’ in the crowning of a pawn, a king knocked over too soon might suggest a fragility of temperament she’ll have to conquer in her quest to put Katwe on the map.

There isn’t a false moment in this captivatingly upbeat film which boasts bravura performances from its largely unknown cast. As Phiona,  Madina Nalwanga radiates an infectious serenity. Lupita Nyong’o is equally effective as her headstrong mother. It’s the ensemble playing of the entire cast that really makes the film great. It hums with a tremendous energy. 

This is mainly down to the first rate direction of Mira Nair, who uses her camera almost like a laser beam as she zones in on the lives of the unsung heroes and heroines of Katwe, giving us an uncannily graphic feeling of what day-to-day life must be like in this direly underprivileged corner of the African outback.


Phiona boards a plane for the first time when she tastes the sweet smell of success. She samples the snows of Russia, the white heat of competition in Canada when she has a momentary blip in concentration and crumbles. 

The queen is the most powerful piece in chess. If Phiona is to become the royal figure of the film’s title she’ll have to conquer her demons.

This is much more than a film about a young girl who became internationally famous for her prowess at a board game. 

It’s also the story of a culture, a community where people look out for one another, where they carry one another through the rough times, negotiating problems like motor injuries, house eviction, flash floods and the pregnancy of a sibling before a climactic tussle where Phiona has to test her psychological mettle to the limit before she’s allowed take her place on the world’s stage. 


Highly Recommended *****