I have not seen a Mira Nair film that I’ve not loved to bits. Her latest is empowering and instructive, but it is not nearly as emotionally engaging as her previous work. There is something missing, and it is tempting to attribute blame for the movie’s pervasive blandness to the Disney imprimatur. ‘Feelgood’ is a fine goal, but when striven for at all costs the end product can tend to be insipid. Or, to get down to the tin-tacks of storytelling – there is nothing at stake for the main character.
Based on recent actual events, this is about Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate girl who rose from a township slum in Uganda to become that country’s national chess champion. Rags to riches is an ever-popular theme and Phiona’s journey replicates any number of those with which the cinema has made us familiar. The fact that it deals with a black girl playing chess is a novelty that draws you in straightaway, but without an ‘edge’, without demoralising setbacks and the usual near-insurmountable obstacles in her way, Phiona’s brilliant achievement feels prosaic and lacking passion.
Nair does well to make a compelling spectator sport of the shunting around of rooks and knights and bishops, and she has assembled a terrific cast – although it must be said that none of the locals have the polish of David Oyelow, who plays the Christian outreach teacher who takes Phiona under his wing.
As an exposition of the conditions under which so many in the world have to live, it should not be missed. Phiona’s family sleep on the floor, have no running water and share meals that barely keep them as skinny as beanpoles – how dare such people want a piece of our fat lifestyle.
Visually, it is interesting, too, to see the vibrant colours with which they paint their shanties and adorn themselves. It seems the higher the ladder takes us in the West, the more grimly monochromatic our wardrobe and surroundings become. Phiona’s story inspires but Nair does not deliver the triumphant flourish it deserves.