“The Mozart of chess” isn’t the most hip of nicknames but it goes some way to expressing the inexplicable, impossible genius of Magnus Carlsen. The 25-year-old Norwegian Grandmaster is the focus of Benjamin Ree’s Magnus, an intimate documentary that charts his rise to fame and an all-important 2013 World Championship event in Chennai. It does so with a humility that mirrors the self-effacing nature and bashful smile of its timid, attention-averse subject. “It’s hard to be cool when I play chess,” says Magnus in home video footage as an adolescent, struggling through his formative years at school.
Bullied and outcast as a bit of an oddball by his peers, the fact that the young man now travels the world doing what he loves, is a fashion model, is a global inspiration to millions of children following in his footsteps and was recently named one of Times magazine’s ‘Top 100 influential people’ makes it clear who’s had the last laugh here. As is so often the case with individuals whose grey matter functions on a plain that most of us can only dream of, Magnus conducts himself at all times with a kind of bemused, alienated charm and it’s underlined from the off that he has always been in his own world; his intellect both a help and a hindrance.
It was his inability to follow instruction and a slow physical development that first concerned his father, Henrik. Magnus’ mother, Sigrun, is entirely absent from proceedings but sisters Ingrid, Signe and Ellen speak lovingly of their hyper-functioning, awkward brother and the family unit plays a vital role throughout, especially ahead of the final match. Unable to hurdle a rudimentary obstacle constructed by his father but willing to focus for hours on a Lego train set, we soon realise that Magnus – even as a child – is the real brains of the operation.
Thankfully, there’s never any suggestion that his parents forced him down a road with any motive other than what was best for their son. There is pure, giddy enjoyment in his playing of the game that is infectious but with such an all-consuming obsession comes pressure and expectation and one-on-one interviews speak to personal, emotional fragility. A montage of tournaments, headlines and a deepening voice shows years pass and a steady growth of recognition for the extraordinary talent.
Watching the goofy boy develop into a man, we share in his experiences and root for him each step of the way. One interviewee suggests that Magnus’ manner of playing chess is impossible, like “climbing Everest in tennis shoes with no oxygen.” His humble brilliance is such that we always believe he will make the summit. And that when he gets there, he won’t gloat or boast, but simply be happy and look for the next challenge ahead with characteristically innocent fascination and inspiring dedication.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens