Magnus: this chess documentary charts the genesis of genius

James Luxford

Of all the sports in the world, competitive chess is not one that inspires Hollywood-style underdog stories. But this tale of the genesis of genius is, in its own way, as compelling as any blockbuster.

People of a certain age, of course, will remember the epic battle of minds that was Garry Kasparov vs Bobby Fischer, and the wider battle for supremecy between Russia and the US that it came to represent. This generation’s chess hero, as documented here by Benjamin Ree, is Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian prodigy described as The Mozart of chess. Rees follows the boy’s origins from gifted youngster to the 2013 World Championship in Chennai, India.

There are no artistic flourishes on display, with the style resolutely fly-on-the-wall, always content to watch events unfold, which feels like exactly the right approach. Even those unaware of Carlson or the world he has conquered will be fascinated by his story. He is described by virtually everyone as an unprecedented talent, with his style of play compared to “climbing Everest in tennis shoes, with no oxygen”.

While coming across as a chess machine, Magnus is not without his flaws. Seeing him succumb to nerves on the big stage creates an empathy as his career progresses, dispelling the cliché of the emotionless savant. There’s no hint of parental pressure, either – Magnus’ mild mannered father is calm and surprisingly balanced.

On paper, the lack of character dissection appears a little dull, but Ree revels in the understated nature of his subject.

There are no tantrums, no controversy, you’re simply witnessing a spectacularly gifted person reach his own personal mountaintop. As the Championship looms, the perfect antagonist is offered in defending champion Viswanathan Anand, who uses computer programmes to perfect his game, creating a Rocky-esque showdown of technology versus God-given skill.

Unassumingly captivating, Magnus is a film that forgoes any showmanship, and is all the better for it.

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