Documentaries about geniuses aren’t that hard to find – and for chess geniuses, the standard is definitely famous Bobby Fischer Against the World (Liz Garbus, 2011). After all, to have a slightly insane, unstable anti-hero as the main focus of a non-fiction film is the wet dream of many documentarists. So when Benjamin Ree decided to make a film about the Mozart of Chess Magnus Carlsen, an introvert young man who doesn’t seem to exist outside the checkered board, it was obvious he would need to take a very different path from Garbus’s epic film.
Using archive footage of his family outings (from when he was 4 years old upwards) and having Carlsen’s father narrate the whole thing, Magnus almost feels (at least in the beginning) like a very well made family film. As his parents noticed Magnus unusual ability with patterns and sequences, the dies are cast – Magnus slowly progresses from national tournaments to draw against Grandmaster Kasparov, showing off party tricks at Harvard and, at last, battling for the World Chess Champion against Viswanathan Anand in 2013, at the tender age of 22 (spoiler: he wins it). With the rare privilege of being able to trace and document all of Magnus life since the very beginning, director Ree tries to provide an explanation for the young man’s otherworldly talent – and the answer seems to be: just enjoy it.
Filmed almost like a drama (using plenty of staging between news and archive footage), Magnus is ultimately the story of a man that has to defeat himself to be able to succeed. His victory against Anand is, after all, the victory of intuition over memorization – as the Indian grandmaster maintained his title by exploring software combinations, and the Norwegian boy was never taught “in the classical chess way”, preferring to apply principles to the board as it develops – thus winning when managing to throw his adversaries in uncharted waters. It is also the victory of a well-brought, family-supported young man who has a passion and, even if “it’s hard to be cool when you play chess” (his sad answer to the bullying he suffered in school), he now made chess hip again for the younger generations.
You don’t need to play chess to enjoy this movie, but it surely helps – though the film tries its hardest to translate the genius of Magnus into “chess for dummies” sequences, you can only truly savour his mind if you get what’s at stake on the board. With some well-built tense moments, Magnus is a decent, solid biographical documentary, but may appear too linear for more hardened cinephile palates. Chess fans and curious minds will enjoy it, though.
Magnus played at the 2016 BFI Film Festival and will be released in the UK on 25th November 2016.
MAGNUS will be available on digital, VoD, Blu-ray & DVD from 12th December