UK Release Date: 25th November 2016
Runtime: 78 minutes
Director: Benjamin Ree
Writer: Benjamin Ree, Linn-Jeanethe Kyed
Starring: Magnus Carlsen, Viswanathan Anand, Garry Kasparov, Henrik Carlsen
Synopsis: The story of a chess prodigy dubbed ‘The Mozart of Chess’, who rises from his youth in Norway to battle in a titanic clash for the World Chess Championship in India.
Chess isn’t the most cinematic of sports. Whilst dozens of movies about boxing are welcomed into cinemas, a couple of people pushing bits of wood around a board doesn’t exactly scream spectacle. And yet, numerous movies, including this year’s Queen of Katwe, have focused around the complex game. The latest of these films is the documentary Magnus, which tells the story of Magnus Carlsen – the current world champion and a former prodigy known as ‘The Mozart of Chess’. It’s an intriguing story, but unfortunately one told with very little in the way of cinematic flair.
We are introduced to Magnus Carlsen as he prepares for his world championship clash with formidable champion Viswanathan Anand in the latter’s home town of Chennai, India. Via archive footage, we then see Magnus as a child struggling to fit in until he finds his purpose in puzzles and chess. Magnus then rises through the ranks to become one of the youngest grandmasters in history on the way to his blockbuster battle with Anand. Given the construction of the film as a traditional sporting underdog story, the outcome is never really in doubt.
There is certainly the raw material here for a compelling documentary film. Director Benjamin Ree gets great access to the family archive and the footage of Magnus as a child is interesting, providing a glimpse at the kind of person who ultimately masters one of the most complicated games on the planet. Once this has been dispensed with, however, Ree’s film lurches forward in time for a linear, unimaginative description of Magnus’ life and career. Despite the early teases, Magnus never delves into the psyche or personality of its title character. We know Magnus is a fantastic chess player, but we don’t know how his head works. One talking head says that it’s as if he can “look into the matrix”, but we’re never quite sure what this means.
Magnus also struggles to communicate exactly what it is that makes chess an interesting spectator sport. The key to a great documentary is making it subject gripping regardless of prior knowledge and that’s something that this film is unable to do for the complex lexicon chess, which remains entirely impenetrable even as the credits roll. This robs the climactic world championship bout of much in the way of tension as it’s almost impossible for a layman to work out what’s happening in the matches.
It doesn’t help that the film’s pacing is all over the place. Ree sprints through the early stages of Magnus’ life, only to spend an enormous amount of time going through various stages of a qualifying chess tournament. There’s a fascination with the physical machinations of chess that is never communicated to the audience and this means that we spend a great deal of time watching these events play out. Far more interesting scenes, such as the remarkable spectacle of Magnus beating ten players simultaneously whilst blindfolded, are given relatively little screen time, despite being a far more effective communicator of Magnus’ prowess.
Ultimately, Magnus is something of a missed opportunity, taking a great story and an interesting central character and focusing on entirely the wrong aspects of the narrative. With a little more attention to what makes Magnus tick beneath the surface and a greater, more detailed explanation of the inner workings of the chess world, this could have been one of the more compelling documentary films of the year. Unfortunately, it finds itself sitting a lot nearer the bottom of the genre pile, with its king trapped only a few moves away from a clear checkmate.
Pop or Poop?
Despite a great central story, Magnus fails to capitalise and produce something exciting. The best documentaries illuminate subjects that the audience might not be familiar with, but this one doesn’t seem to have any interest in guiding the audience through the world of competitive chess. That, in itself, is not a problem, but we don’t get to know our protagonist either and, in a movie named after him, that’s a very bad move indeed.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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