Directed by Benjamin Ree.
The life story of current World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen, from his early days as a child prodigy to becoming the most successful world number one at the age of just 25.
By the time Magnus is released, this year’s World Chess Championships could be over bar the shouting. It started last Friday and is scheduled to end on November 30th, which also happens to be the 26th birthday of defending champion, Magnus Carlsen. No pressure, then.
For those unfamiliar with either chess, Norway or both, Carlsen is “The Mozart Of Chess”, a prodigiously talented child who became his country’s national champion at the tender age of 13. That was the year when he played the then world number one, Garry Kasparov. Ranked somewhere in the 700s, the teenager still managed to fluster his illustrious opponent. Not that he was ever going to anything else. This year, Magnus defends his title against a new challenger, world number nine Sergei Karyakin from Russia and, even before the tournament started, the media was reporting that the champ had employed Microsoft to protect his computer systems from Russian hackers.
The documentary starts at the opening of the Championships in 2013, when Magnus was the challenger, and then takes us right back to his early childhood. It follows his career in chronological order, but it’s interspersed with updates from the title matches. The physically awkward child found it difficult to relate to other people but eventually showed signs of being outstanding at complex problem solving. Father Henrik thought he might be good at chess and he wasn’t wrong, but it was never going to be an easy option. Bullied at school and still socially uncomfortable, he didn’t take to the sudden media attention and the pressure eventually got to him when he played in the World Cup, aged just 15. Until then, he’d seemed invincible, playing what he describes as an “intuitive” style of chess. But he was defeated, in his own words a “devastating” experience.
Benjamin Ree’s first documentary feature makes use of an extensive archive, mainly from the family, which is dedicated to Magnus’s early life. More recent footage is a mixture of TV coverage and access to the champion and his family, in more private moments – relaxing together or Magnus alone, winding down after a tournament has finished for the day. Given that his subject is a deeply private individual, Lee clearly gained the trust of both the young man and his family to obtain such remarkable access.
As a piece of storytelling, the film is unfussy, linear and straightforward. Magnus is a gift to the director, with his reticence, awkwardness and huge talent. You wonder how long he will be at number one, how he will continue to cope with the attention (he frequently looked like a rabbit in the headlights, and still does) and what he’ll do once his competitive chess career is over. Because there’s nothing else he’s really interested in. Genius can be a blessing and a curse.
It also raises the complex dilemma facing anybody who’s prodigiously good at sport or anything else in the public arena. They’re just interested in what they do and want to do it to the highest standards. But nowadays handling the media goes with the territory and they have to learn how to present a positive image of themselves. For the shy, serious Magnus it doesn’t come easily and the media probably have loads of shots which make him look miserable. It’s reminiscent of tennis’s Andy Murray. But now Magnus is number one by a mile, has launched his own app is had a modelling gig with Gemma Arterton. And Murray is just getting used to being world number one.
It’s a fascinating story. As Queen of Katwe showed last month, chess isn’t the most cinematic of activities, but the film still demonstrates that you don’t need to know anything about the game to feel the tension and the weight of expectation on those young shoulders. It attempts to show his thought processes by tracing different moves on the chess board, but they’re only meaningful to anybody who plays the game. All Ree has to do is tell it like it is and not embellish it. And that’s exactly what he does.
Magnus himself has inspired thousands of children to take up the game, both in Norway and round the world. And, as the film is a U certificate, it may inspire some more. Although it’s more likely it’ll be preaching to the converted.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★