“MAGNUS”— The Wizard of Chess


The Mozart of Chess

Amos Lassen

Norwegian documentary filmmaker Benjamin Ree brings us the captivating story of Magnus Carlsen, who was once bullied as an introverted 13-year-old boy, yet he still managed to grow up to become a World Chess Champion. Through home movies and archival footage, we see a unique coming-of-age story that shows us a remarkable boy’s determination to achieve success.

Ree examines the life and skills of Magnus Carlsen, a chess prodigy who was recognized as the youngest grandmaster in the world at age 13 and during the same year earned even more acclaim by gaining a tie with Garry Kasparov, the world’s best chess player.

Magnus’s father Henrik is the narrator of this look at the youngster who was called “the Mozart of Chess” early in his career. As a young boy, he kept to himself and was, according to his dad, often lost in thought. He loved LEGO and other activities that sharpened his mind. As a teenager, Magnus traveled to matches around the world, but at home, he was bullied in school. Early on, he set his goal to become the world’s best chess player.

We see him demonstrate his skills at Harvard University by checkmating ten lawyers while wearing a blindfold. Magnus became world champion in 2013 at the age of 22. Most of the documentary is in English and has family appeal. It is a film about talent and dedication that even teenagers can enjoy. As much as we learn about Carlsen , there’s still a mystery at the core of his remarkable mental agility that sustains an element of spontaneity even when we know how events will turn out.

As a boy, he was bad at sports, and bullied for it, but he possessed such powers of concentration that somehow he moved from assembling Lego toys to strategy on the chessboard. Magnus isn’t about role models but about formidable inner strength. Carlsen is restless and relentlessly self-critical.

In close-ups, we see that, as on the chessboard, he’s always several steps ahead of the people trying to figure him out.  He is captivating to watch, although Ree seems to know the limits of what his film can explain.

We see Carlsen’s strength tested (always by older opponents) in tournaments and there is great drama here. While the film probes Carlsen’s inner life and his battles to defeat the world’ finest players, we don’t see whether the young man has any conflict with his father, or any interest in girls. And we wonder how the reclusive kid who barely spoke yet he became fluent in English. Eventually Carlsen gets a clothing endorsement deal, the rite of passage of any professional athlete and we see that the superhuman is also human.

Carlsen is a young man who reached the pinnacle of an elite competition on his own terms. We get the same elements as a standard coming of age movie including the awkward and often challenging school years, the internal battle within and finally the rise and success in his later years. The most fascinating aspect of the documentary is Magnus’ thought process and there is no doubt that Magnus Carlsen is a wonder to behold. He’s currently defending his title at the 2016 World Chess Championship in New York and has the highest FIDE rating of all time. He possesses a monumental talent that is difficult to convey on screen and this is quite a fascinating film.

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