‘Magnus’ is a feature documentary based on Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian chess prodigy often referred to as “the Mozart of chess.” The film is directed by Norwegian documentary filmmaker Benjamin Ree, produced by Sigurd Mikal Karoliussen, and co-written by Linn-Jeanethe Kyed.
The film opens at the 2013 World Chess Championship match in Chennai, India—as Magnus prepares his match with chess Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, who had defended his World Championship title since 2007, and is ready to defend it again at all costs. The title “Grandmaster” is the highest title (apart from “World Champion”) a chess player can attain, and is awarded by the World Chess Federation. If you’re wondering who takes chess and the WCF all that seriously, as many as 200 million TV watchers tuned into the Magnus-Anand match everyday in 2013. But before the iconic match commences, the film rewinds back to the prodigy’s childhood—and the historical moment in chess history of 2013 is temporarily halted, to be revisited only at the concluding of the film. Ree starts the narrative by introducing us to the final moment before the climax, and then building up to the grand finale.
“It was hard to teach him to do something physically,” Magnus’ father comments, as we see an old footage of Magnus tripping and bumbling while trying to follow the swiftness of his sisters. From the selection of Magnus’ childhood footage, it’s clear that he had always been an outsider, sitting on the sideline seeming to be in a state of contemplation. His father recognizes his oddity yet genius from very early on; that his physical awkwardness is overcompensated by his apparent mathematical and analytical brilliance. He introduces Magnus to the world of chess, and naturally, Magnus excels at it. But his natural gift at chess does not come without a price: his lack of school and social interaction with other children cause him to retreat further away from people, and socializing in general.
In an interview, when asked how many times he thinks about chess, he responds what we would expect from any chess prodigy, all the time. Then the interviewer asks a follow-up question, are you thinking about chess right now? To which he responds that he is in fact, playing a game of chess at the back of his mind meanwhile conversing with the interviewer. Magnus is clearly distinct from the “average” person (unless you consider playing imaginary games of chess while holding conversations, “average”). But this comes with sorrows; he must battle his inner demons everyday. Perhaps his demons arise from his obsession with the futility of trying to defeat the very game of chess.
When we finally circle back to the 2013 World Chess Championship match with Anand, a commentator describes Magnus’ achievement as akin to, “climbing Mt. Everest with tennis shoes…and no oxygen.” With proper shoes and oxygen or not, Magnus climbs to the top of the chess world—and not without blood, toil, tears, and sweat either. Often times from an outsider’s perspective it may seem as if champions rise to the title solely with their natural born gift, but the film Magnus proves otherwise. Magnus, like every other world champion of their field, has fought his battles to earn his recognition.