Magnus Review

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Documentary charting the rise of youthful Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen, who became a Grandmaster at the age of 13, and who in 2013 took on Viswanathan Anand for the World Chess Championship when he was still only 22 years old.


Magnus Carlsen, as we are told quite a few times during the film that bears his name, is the Mozart of chess. Which means there must be a modern Amadeus to be made from his life-story (though Viswanathan Anand, who Carlsen faced for the World Chess Championship title, might have something to say about being given the Salieri role). But for now this insightful, intimate documentary will more than suffice.

In part, Magnus is an origin story, with director Benjamin Ree taking advantage of the wealth of home-video material from Carlsen's childhood, showing the pawn-pushing prodigy during his formative years — as early as four years old, when he spent six straight hours putting together a complicated Lego train. "Magnus was very often lost in thought when he was young," says his father, Henrik. "I thought he could be a good chess player..."

Fortunately, this isn’t a pushy-parent narrative; there’s nothing monstrous about Carlsen, Sr. In fact, it’s heartening to see how supportive Magnus’ family are, his father and sisters keeping him relaxed and grounded between matches. And as interesting as it is to observe the young Magnus flowering into a fresh-faced Grandmaster, the documentary is most fascinating when it’s examining his unique play-style.

Whereas his World Championship opponent, computer programmer Viswanathan Anand, is all about study and precise analysis of his opponents, Magnus has what his dad calls “a playful approach”, reliant more on intuition than study. It’s a talent that doesn’t always withstand the extreme stress-test of competition, and makes for agonising viewing at times, through footage of Carlsen hunching stiffly over the board, pawing at his face in discomfort and apparent self-loathing. And there’s an enticing mystery at the heart of this narrative: how exactly does Magnus play like this, so effortlessly yet so mind-bogglingly well? "It’s like someone climbing Everest in tennis shoes with no oxygen," marvels one commentator. "It’s impossible for the human brain..."

An engaging study of a beautiful but mysterious mind, which also reveals the stressful nature of world-class chess tournaments and raises the deep question of where intelligence actually comes from.