Starring: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga
Director: Mira Nair
Running Time: 124 mins
Synopsis: In Katwe, Uganda, 14 yr old Phiona struggles daily to live amongst the slums and poverty of her town. One day she meets Robert Katende (Oyelowo), a local missionary, who introduces her to chess. Taking to it with aplomb she finds herself playing against worldwide champions and may be able to use this to raise her family out of their struggles.
Disney are masters of the true story featuring a sport, an underdog and a triumph against adversity, and here we find no different. However, the sport in question is that most uncinematic of sports, chess. So how do you turn chess into a thrilling tale of courage, loss and triumph when the most exciting moment features a wooden piece toppling over?! Mira Nair (rather quiet since storming the scene with Monsoon Wedding in 2001) works it out by framing the game of minds within a world of social and economical plight. She does this with a surprising restraint and is helped admirably by some terrific performances.
Newcomer Madina Nalwanga is our heroine and the newbie is utterly transfixing to watch. Convincing and emotionally raw, she is a real find. Starting off relatively silent but watching, always watching. We can see from her expressions just how overwhelming, confusing and sometimes wonderful this new world Robert introduces her to is for her. A late in the day turn into how success has changed her is effective if a little underutilised. But Nalwanga carries it all with grace and sensitivity.
She is lucky to have two phenomenal performers around her though. Oyelowo continues to deliver well-rounded humane performances with energy and soul. The usual teacher who inspires role is given some much needed heft through his characters internal debate between providing for his family financially or providing for the kids in his class intellectually. Oyelowo sells this struggle with subtlety and heart.
He may have the heart but Nyong’o brings the strength. In her first on screen role since exploding onto the scene with 12 years a Slave (since Slave her only roles have been via greenscreen) here she reminds us of just why the Academy loved her to start with. As Phiona’s mum she has some truly heartbreaking moments. Raising four kids on her own, she tries to shield them from what she perceives as dangers, but in her stubbornness to let anyone else in she risks breaking her entire family. Through it all Nyong’o is captivating to watch, her vibrant eyes full of pain and desperation. It is her that drives the tear inducement of the finale. I hope after this we continue to see her luminous face in front of the camera.
Mira Nair is the other standout amongst all this story familiarity. Although she doesn’t offer any sort of directorial verve, no editing tricks here, she directs with a clear eye and a focus on performance above all else. She coaxes remarkably believable performances from the young inexperienced cast and should be applauded for avoiding the melodrama these sorts of films usually attract. The moments of heartache and setbacks are told with simplicity with an avoidance of swelling score and OTT wailing. The chess scenes are effectively tense also. Perhaps realising that seeing numerous games of chess would become staid, she wisely only shows a few key ones. Instead choosing to zoom in on those watching or listening. Seeing two players sweat, and stare hopelessly at their pieces becomes oddly gripping.
As the film draws to its end we get to see the cast alongside their real life counterparts and it is helpful in grasping just how important this story is. By setting a familiar underdog tale in a place of such huge class differences gives the usual quest for greatness an added punch. To these people this wasn’t a simple board game but a chance to play amongst the big boys, to potentially use your intellect to help you out of what life has born you into, to perhaps earn enough to maybe just maybe provide a roof for your family. A beautiful message told with authority and delicacy.
Verdict: Somewhat trite and cliched messages are given new life here with a unique perspective, a clutch of wonderful performances and a complete absence of melodrama. It won’t surprise you but it will move you!