MAGNUS (Norway/G/78mins)
Directed by Benjamin Ree. Starring Magnus Carlsen, Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand
In 2004, Magnus Carlsen became a chess Grandmaster, making him the third youngest person in history to achieve this. In 2013, Carlsen competed at the World Championships against five-time winner Viswanathan Anand. For the first time, Magnus and his father Henrik Carlsen reveal just how Carlsen’s career in chess got started, when his father realised that his son could be a chess prodigy, and the work that went into getting Carlsen to the World Championships.
THE VERDICT: Chess is on something of an upswing lately; ‘Magnus’ follows in the cinematic footsteps of the recent ‘Queen of Katwe’, and the game is constantly cropping up in mainstream media, including in an episode of ‘Doctor Who’ written by Neil Gaiman. Audiences curious about the game and how one becomes the best of the best will find Magnus engaging and tense, but those of us with less of an affinity with the game will still find plenty to enjoy in this charming documentary.
Director Benjamin Ree makes his feature length debut with ‘Magnus’, and does well with the telling of the story. Using Magnus’ father Henrik as the narrator of the story is an interesting choice, as it allows the audience to see how the talent for chess was discovered in Magnus. Blending this with home videos of Magnus as a child and his first forays into the game make the first half of the film engaging and charming. Of course, Magnus has to build to something, and the 2013 World Championships of Chess are firmly in Ree’s sights as he pulls the film together.
In the interviews that intersperse the footage of Carlsen playing chess, this young master seems utterly aware of not only his social awkwardness, but also the fact that he struggled to make friends at school because of his passion; “It’s hard to be cool when I play chess”, Carlsen honestly tells the audience, but in the world of chess, Carlsen is the ultimate cool kid as he takes down older and more experienced players than him. The trouble with the film arises with the focus of the film being almost too far away from Carlsen; archive interviews with him as a child go some way to giving the audience insight into his character and passion for chess, but we do not get to meet the older Magnus until the film is well into its second half. As well as this, there is only so much tension that can be created with the focus on the World Championships, as there is obviously a reason that this story is being told.
In all, however, ‘Magnus’ is a charming and endearing documentary, but a stronger focus on Magnus in the present day would have made for a stronger film, as would a less familiar structure to the film. As it stands, ‘Magnus’ is an engaging story that works whether audiences are familiar with chess or not, but there are times when the film feels a little superficial and conventional.
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    When it comes to films about chess, the main character is often more interesting than the game of kings itself. Documentary Magnus takes a probing look into Norwegian chess genius Magnus Carlsen. At the time of writing, he’s currently finished Game 10 of 12 to defend his title of World Champion against Russian Sergey Karjakin.

    The story of how Magnus became ‘The Mozart of Chess’ begins much earlier. The story is related through his father Henrik. As a child, Magnus would spend hours building things with Lego pieces, strategically working out what goes where and why. He moved on to chess, though he was initially not that interested in the game. He was able to visualise all the potential moves on the board in his mind (helpfully illustrated in the film). He soon began beating nearly everyone, which led him to an encounter with the-then world champion Garry Kasparov at the age of 13. He certainly gave Kasparov a few sleepless nights. As he got older, his skills improved even more, though frustration at occasionally losing took its toll. This all leads up to the 2013 World Chess Championship, where he faces off against world champion Indian Viswanathan Anand…

    Magnus is a documentary that would sit comfortably side-by-side with Bobby Fischer vs The World. There’s something about the game of chess which says a lot about the people playing it. Magnus is a chess genius very much in the Bobby Fischer mold. Quiet, socially awkward, obsessive and intensely focused, the game of chess is everything to him. It has become the defining part of his life as a young man. He would no doubt agree with Windom Earle’s declaration in Twin Peaks that all of life’s answers can be found on the chess board.

    Benjamin Ree’s documentary probes as much as it can to get at the personality of Magnus. However, it never really gets under his skin. He remains an enigmatic figure at best, his personality and life outside of the chess board (if there is one) frustratingly out of reach. Even the occasional interviews with the man himself are slowly spoken, as if Magnus was weighing each word for impact. Though, towards the end there’s a sign that Magnus is beginning to accept his fame and is also doing something to become more inclusive. Even as an enigma, it’s fascinating to watch Magnus and his thought process, as he begins to lose his cool in the face of his opponent. It’s a slight film, rather an insightful one, but Ree does just enough to give you an idea of what makes Magnus tick. ***