Magnus Carlsen is a chess prodigy, specifically speaking, becoming a World Champion in 2013 at the age of 22. I’m no chess expert myself, but I’ve always associated chess with old fogeys in the park taking forever to make their next move, and not dapper young men with crowds cheering for them as they enter the arena.
Benjamin Ree’s Magnus seeks to change the view of chess. His documentary follows Carlsen from his youth all the way to his adulthood, culminating in his nail-biting win at the 2013 World Championships in India. Magnus begins with Carlsen as a young boy, trained by his father Henrik who also used to manage him. Henrik also acts as our narrator for much of the film, explaining how Magnus has always shown a keen intelligence and sharpness of mind, leading to his rapid development in various intellectual activities, from puzzles to games and of course, eventually training him in the field of chess.
The footage of his chess training is set against his home life. Magnus is shown to have been bad at sports as a child and sometimes bullied for that. He was not, however, an unhappy child, and shared a strong relationship with his family, with a penchant for Donald Duck comics. Magnus is immediately made into a relatable figure, a new age geek hero for the countless present day youth who have trouble fitting in as well.
The film then begins to cut to scenes as Magnus grows older, revealing some of his unorthodox training methods such as playing blindfolded, with Henrik explaining how Magnus’ approach to chess is to go in with an open mind, treating it like the game that it is. Ree moves us through significant moments in Magnus’ life, playing then world champion Gary Kasparov in 2004, drawing and then losing the match, but a signifier that he was destined for greatness.
In the final half hour of the film, we’re at the height of Magnus’ career, watching as he plays Viswanathan Anand in 2013, vying for the World Championship title. I was surprised at how much fanfare was given to the competition, almost as much one would give for a regular sporting event, and how deserving it was of that, with a mental intensity in the 10 games unmatched by any other. Magnus, as we know, wins, and you can almost hear the sigh of relief in the air as he walks away, the new champion. The footage cuts to various children playing chess, announcing Magnus as their hero and inspiration, before cutting back to Magnus getting dunked into a pool of water before arising triumphant, later on walking a red carpet to claim his title, still the relatable, everyman type hero to chess aspirants all over.
After catching Magnus, I’m convinced that chess has the potential to be just as exciting as any other sport. Carlsen is an inspiration for a new generation of chess players, and I’m glad that Ree has given him a means to access an even wider audience with a well-crafted film that’s easy to watch, yet reveals new layers you’d never have expected from a tabletop game that’s easy to dismiss but next to impossible to master. I’ve found a new hero in Carlsen, and a newfound appreciation for the beautiful game of chess.
Director Benjamin Ree (left) with Magnus Carlsen
We also got a phone interview with director Benjamin Ree, and it goes a little something like this:
BCM: What drew you to the project?
Benjamin: I was drawn to the project because I found it fascinating. Chess players rarely have documentaries done on them, and Magnus, he had this intense curiosity to learn chess, and a lot of discipline. You come to realise chess is a lot of structured work and training. I still can’t believe that when Magnus was 13 years old, he managed to go up against all those other chess experts, and to have the discipline and the determination to overcome all odds till now. Even then, he remains playful in his approach, and he’s passionate about chess, and he’s the highest rated chess player of all time, and that’s why I though it would have made a great project.
BCM: How long did you work on the film for?
Benjamin: 3 and a half years, and it was well spent!
BCM: There’s a lot of footage from before then though, where did that come from?
Benjamin: Some of it was from Magnus’ father, like those from when he was six years old. Actually, the project itself started in 2004, so we had over 100 hours of footage from 2004. But it was only in 2013 when we started to put the footage together and start work on the documentary proper.
BCM: Do you have any directors who inspire you?
Benjamin: There’s lots of film makers that inspire me, such as Richard Linklater (Boyhood). But there was one documentary that stood out for me some time ago, and that was When We Were Kings, a documentary about Muhammad Ali (directed by Leon Gast)
BCM: What if Magnus didn’t become World Champion in 2013? Would you still have proceeded with the film?
Benjamin: We still would have, because his win wasn’t the ultimate focus of the film. We still wanted to show the world the story of how Magnus learnt chess, how he made it feel like a game again, and how he’s an inspiration to all. The important thing is still the process, not the end result, and the way he learnt chess and approaches it is really revolutionary, and to teach a new generation of chess players to think different. The story is really more about creative thinking than chess itself. Of course it’s great that he won as well!
BCM: Any upcoming new projects?
Benjamin: I’m actually in the midst of filming a documentary right now, so stay tuned for that!
BCM: Last question. Since this was a chess film, what’s your favourite chess piece?
Benjamin: That’s actually the first time anyone’s asked me that! I would of course have to say the queen, since it’s the strongest chess piece and can move anywhere. The funny story is that the queen didn’t exist at first, and was actually a much weaker piece before it was introduced later on!
Magnus is released in cinemas in the UK on 25 November.