Director: Benjamin Ree
Cast: Magnus Carlsen, Viswanathan Anand, Garry Kasparov, Henrik Albert Carlsen, Ellen Carlsen, Gemma Arterton
Watch Magnus online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Directed by Benjamin Ree, this engaging documentary charts the journey of Norwegian child prodigy-turned-chess champion Magnus Carlsen, aptly nick-named “The Mozart of Chess”. Along the way, it paints a fascinating portrait of obsession and genius, while simultaneously serving as a compelling coming-of-age story, a moving family portrait and a thrilling sports doc.
The film begins with a lengthy interview with Magnus’ likeable father, Henrik Albert Carlsen, who takes us through his son’s awkward childhood, much of which we see on home video clips. Initially, explains Henrik, his parents were concerned over Magnus’ difficulties with physical activities, until he began to apply himself to logic problems and demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for chess at a young age.
Encouraged by his warmly supportive family, Magnus began entering chess championships, becoming a chess grandmaster in 2004, at the age of 13. In the same year, he achieved a draw against Garry Kasparov (then the top-rated player in the game) and the film includes an amusing sequence of Magnus calmly playing his moves and an increasingly annoyed-looking Kasparov, shaking his head in disbelief.
Ree’s story-telling is extremely efficient, using a mixture of home video, news reports, chess championship coverage and to-camera interviews with Magnus himself, as well as various family members. Looking like a nerdy version of Matt Damon, Magnus proves remarkably perceptive about both his ability and the extent of his obsession, admitting that he sometimes gets lost in thought about chess and explaining that he can see the shape of how each game will go, although he also takes pains to point out that he’s “not one of those nutcases”.
Nutcase or not, Magnus’ abilities provide the film with some truly jaw-dropping moments. The highlight comes in 2013, in Harvard, when he plays 10 grandmasters simultaneously, while wearing a blindfold, meaning that he has to remember positions on 10 boards at once.
A note of high tension emerges towards the middle of the film, when Magnus experiences a few wobbles, apparently cracking under the pressure of actually having something to lose. This sets the stakes nicely for the film’s nail-biting finale, when Magnus gets the chance to play world champion Viswanathan “Vishy” Anand in Chennai.
If there’s a problem with the film, it’s only that chess commentary tends to be a rather dull affair, with the presenters’ voices often seeming monotonous, which saps some of the tension. However, Ree makes up for that, with a number of independent interviews (including the likes of Kasparov) that colourfully convey just what makes Magnus’ style of play so exciting, and why observers of the game have likened him to people such as Bobby Fischer.
Throughout the film, Ree occasionally drops hints about the toll Magnus’ obsession takes on his social life – for example, he was bullied at a new school as a child and his devotion to chess tournaments left him with little time for socialising. So it comes as something of a relief, during the film’s unashamedly feel-good epilogue, when Magnus’ sister explains how his success has brought him out of his shell as a person and we see him living like a normal teenager, surrounded by friends. There’s also some excellent mid-credits material – including an unexpected cameo from Gemma Arterton – in which Magnus lands a modelling contract and his sister splutters with amused disbelief.