Lupita Nyong’o radiates beauty, dignity, and noble suffering on screen unlike any actress since Sophia Loren. But as an impoverished single mother in Queen of Katwe, her first live-action role since her Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o’s gravitas is undercut by a script teeming with wooden platitudes, special lessons learned, and the overbaked dialogue of a Joan Crawford melodrama.
That won’t all come as a shock once you see the Walt Disney logo before the opening credits. Yet Disney, to be fair, deserves praise for buying the rights to Tim Crothers’ 2012 nonfiction book about the life of Phiona Mutesi—the shy teenage girl (played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga) living in the slums of Uganda who became a world-class chess champion—and then handing the project to the sparkling visualist Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake), whose own connections to Uganda go back to her first English-language film, 1991’s Mississippi Masala. Nair, as always, finds moments of grace in the narrative, as when Phiona gazes out the window on her first plane ride and asks her chess coach Robert (an ultracharismatic David Oyelowo), “Is that heaven?”
But the movie continually breaks down when it attempts to build dramatic conflict—whether in the stiff, canned dialogue among the chess team, or Robert’s acquiescent wife, or the stock roadblock characters. One of those is the sullen, glowering Harriet (Nyong’o), Phiona’s mother, whose gnashing disapproval of her daughter’s hobby never reads in her dialogue as convincing or compelling. Nair would have been wiser to put the camera on Nyong’o and just let her vivid, extraordinary face speak volumes of truth. C+