Chess might not be an obvious choice for a documentary. Many people consider it ‘boring’ (a word that will define our generation I think), but Magnus sets out to show that it isn’t. It follows Norwegian chess sensation Magnus Carlsen as he becomes a Grandmaster at just 13 and a two-time World Champion at 25.
The documentary starts with the early life of Carlsen. His father, who features a lot throughout, tells what he was like as a boy. I half expected Asperger’s or Autism to crop up but it seems that Carlsen just liked to focus on tasks, once spending six hours building a Lego train as a young boy. It’s clear that he is different, bullied at school, as he says himself it’s hard to be cool when you play chess.
Writer / Director Benjamin Ree (When Ailin Kissed Lars) handles all parts of the subject with aplomb. He allows us to see the real Magnus Carlsen, providing both him and his family the opportunity to tell the story. And what a story it is. It’s very moving which was unexpected, Ree manages to give the whole thing some feeling and emotion and you really end up liking and routing for Carlsen throughout.
The documentary is all leading up to the 2013 championship match where Carlsen will take on five-times chess champion Viswanathan Anand. Anand is an interesting person as he has a whole team of grandmasters who help him to defeat his opponents. They use a computer program called ChessBase that analyses an opponents moves and looks for weaknesses. It seems as though Anand then memorises the moves he needs to make to defeat whoever he’s playing.
In the first few games with Carlsen this approach seems to work well. Carlsen is visibly frustrated and Anand doesn’t seem to have to think at all, instead just working through his notes as it were. However, after a days break, Carlsen comes back and manages to disrupt Anand’s game and it is here, when it becomes man v man, no computers involved, that Carlsen shines.
The championship is played in Anand’s home town of Chennai and the crowds and interest in the game has to be seen to be believed. The way the locals mob the players is tantamount to what you’d see elsewhere if Tom Cruise walked into a room. It’s brilliant to see a culture that values knowledge and ability over say, the ability to kick a ball round a field or have plastic surgery.
As the documentary progresses and Carlsen grows up it’s great to see him become more rounded as a person. He starts to enjoy company more, he does a bit of modelling, even venturing to Central Park with Liv Tyler to play some of the chess people there.
Oh yes, there’s also the time Carlsen plays ten Harvard professors at chess, at the same time, whilst blindfolded, and beats them all…
As the man himself says, he’s not perfect, he makes mistakes and we see those a few times throughout. But this adds to his likeability. His whole laid back approach to the game, the way he beats himself up when he makes a mistake makes him a very likeable character.
Ree has created something wonderful here with Magnus. Documenting a subject most people wouldn’t like, or think they wouldn’t like, Ree has managed to alter our perceptions and grabbed our interest.
MAGNUS is in UK Cinemas from 25th November