Director Benjamin Ree
Starring (as themselves) Magnus Carlsen, Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand
Released 25th November 2016
I’m not Norwegian, nor am I into chess, so it’s no great surprise that I’ve never heard of Magnus Carlsen. Anybody who can tick either or both boxes will be all too familiar with the name and the face of the current World Chess Champion, the subject of Benjamin Ree’s Magnus, who started the defence of his title last Friday. He celebrates his 26th birthday on what should be the final day of the contest, just five days after the documentary is released in the UK. But he’s used to pressure …..
Yes, I did say 26. He was just 13 when he became the national champion in Norway and played the world number one, Garry Kasparov, in the same year. His ranking was somewhere in the 700s but he still managed to fluster his illustrious opponent. Not that he was ever going to do anything else. His first taste of defeat was at 15, when he played in the World Cup. Despite playing what he describes as an “intuitive” style of chess, the pressure got to him and he remembers losing as being “devastating.”
Ree’s film starts at the beginning of the 2013 World Chess Championships in India when Marcus was the challenger and up against the reigning champion Viswanathan Anand. Then it goes back to his childhood and follows him through the years leading up to that point. It follows his career in chronological order, interspersed with updates from the title matches. As a child, Magnus was physically and socially awkward, finding it difficult to relate to other people but eventually showing 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 easy. As a young teenager, he didn’t fit in at school – his mind was always on the game – and suffered at the hands of bullies. He’s never forgotten it, even if his subsequent success is the sweetest of revenge.
For his first documentary feature, Ree makes use of the extensive archive of footage, both home and media, dedicated to the champ’s early life. Later, it’s a mixture of TV footage and more intimate access – the family relaxing together, Magnus on his own after the tournament has finished for the day – and, given that Magnus himself is a very private individual, he’s achieved remarkable access.
The film puts into sharp focus the dilemma facing anybody who’s prodigiously good at something public. All they want to do is play their particular sport or game. But today they have to learn to handle the media, how to present a positive image of themselves, whether it comes naturally or not. For Magnus – and he’s not alone in this – it doesn’t come easily and chances are the media have plenty of shots of him apparently looking miserable. It chimes with the British media’s relationship with Andy Murray. Nowadays, Magnus is number one at chess by a mile, but he’s also developed his own app and has been modelling fashion alongside Gemma Arterton. And, after winning Wimbledon for the second time, Murray is number one as well.
As a piece of storytelling, it’s unfussy, linear and straightforward. But Magnus is a gift to the director with his combination of reticence, awkwardness and huge talent. You wonder how long he will be at number one – he’s the most successful chess player ever – how he will continue to cope with the attention (he still looks like a rabbit in the headlights) and what he’ll do once his chess career is over. Because there’s nothing else he’s interested in. Genius – and he clearly is one – can be a blessing and a curse.
Attempts to show his thought processes, tracing different moves on the chessboard, are only really meaningful for anybody who understands the game. But it’s a story that isn’t the slightest bit short of inherent drama or fascination and all Ree has to do is tell it like it is. Which is exactly what he does.
Magnus is released on Friday, 25th November and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 24th November.