Child prodigies are the curiosities of the celebrity world – and while those amazing little actors and singers might impress us, it’s even more remarkable when children excel in those cerebral endeavors typically left to adults.
The world of chess has seen its share of brilliant children: Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, and now Magnus Carlsen, the 25-year-old subject of Benjamin Ree’s documentary Magnus, a tense but uneven glimpse into the world of champion chess via the so-called “Mozart of Chess.”
Magnus does what many documentaries cannot do: it follows its subject from a very young age, using archival footage and interviews to fill in the gaps of Magnus’s childhood in Norway, through his multiple championships and becoming a chess Grand Master at the age of 13, and finally to his competition with the reigning World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand. The film creates a unique look at a child genius, attempting to provide insight into his uncanny prowess at a complicated and intellectual game.
A film like Magnus has to appeal not only to those in the chess world, but also to the vast majority of us outside it – and I admit that I had never heard of Magnus Carlsen until I saw this doc. He’s a fascinating figure though, as the film demonstrates: a trifle withdrawn and introverted from an early age, he nevertheless showed a remarkable aptitude with numbers that made his parents believe he might excel in chess.
But rather than training him in the way that many chess players are trained – through rigorous discipline and structured study – Magnus’s family allowed him instead to remain a child, and actually develop his skills through his intuition and true love of the game. The family becomes a second character in what is otherwise an individual portrait, as Magnus relies on his father, mother, and sisters for support throughout his career.
Magnus the person is never fully revealed – watching him play chess, we see a concentrated young man who almost exists on another planet from the rest of us. He’s able to intuitively understand the movements of the game, seeing the connection between pieces without apparent conscious effort. By 13, he’s matching wits with Garry Kasparov, one of the greatest chess players of all time; and by 23, he’s challenging the reigning World Chess Champion. This leads us into the most intense part of the film, as we follow Magnus through the challenging, tense match.
The match is presented as a conflict between intuition and science, with Magnus pitting himself against Anand’s mathematical precision. It certainly has the ring of the underdog versus the master, but given all we’ve seen from Magnus during the film, it is no surprise that he’s the challenger.
Magnus does an excellent job at presenting a difficult subject and making it exciting. I could, however, have done with a clearer examination of Magnus’s approach to chess and how he prepares for a match. While there are occasional scenes that map out moves and attempt to provide a visual understanding of the way his mind works, lines drawn on a chess board and the calling out of “queen to bishop 6” means very little to a non-chess player. Nevertheless, the film conjures remarkable tension for such a personal and intellectual game. Chess has never been quite so riveting.
Magnus, unfortunately, passes over certain parts of its subject’s development. While we see the boy playing in tournaments and are told that he’s bullied in school, the balance of being a child chess prodigy and a normal boy with normal childhood experiences is never particularly examined or elucidated.
In fact, the entire film feels just a little perfunctory, as though the narrative constructed is a very specific one and does not permit outside perspective. Interviewing other members of the chess community outside of Magnus’s family and team members might have helped this. While we get occasional glimpses at Anand’s team, there is no discussion with Anand himself, nor does the team particularly develop their response to or understanding of Magnus.
All that being said, Magnus is still an interesting film, if not a particularly great one. It tries to provide some insight into what is essentially an elusive and cerebral character. Much like the game he plays so brilliantly, Magnus Carlsen is an enigma, a little inaccessible to those outside of his insular world. To make a movie about such an elusive figure is a challenging undertaking, and it’s a testament to the quality of Magnus that the film succeeds as well as it does.
Magnus is a tense but uneven glimpse into the world of champion chess via its subject, the "Mozart of Chess" Magnus Carlsen.