The first question of any chess movie, as with any chess match, is “How will this surprise us?”
“Magnus,” about “The Mozart of Chess,” Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen, asks “Why bother?”
If you haven’t heard of him, didn’t read the Time Magazine “most influential” list or catch the CBS “60 Minutes” profile, you might hold out a little hope. At the opening of Benjamin Ree’s film, Carlsen is settling in to a grueling championship match (in 2013) with five-time world champ Vishy Anand in Anand’s hometown in India.
Will Magnus crack up? As we’re treated to home movies from his childhood in which his father Henrik describes him as “slow to develop” and physically awkward, and we don’t hear Magnus speak, maybe you think “Is he on the spectrum?”
He didn’t fit in at school, took his share of bullying and lost himself in Donald Duck comic books, novelty tunes and chess.
But the adult — he turns 26 on Nov. 30 — seems perfectly sane, “not, for lack of a better expression, a ‘borderline nutcase,'” Magnus declares in flawless English.
So much for Bobby Fischer comparisons — at least in terms of psychology.
Ree’s film tracks Carlsen’s career, from his childhood where his parents — both of them Norwegian engineers — identified him as “special” from the age of four. Dad pushed his numbers-obsessed son with the prodigious memory into chess. And we follow Magnus up the ladder, rattling legendary champ Garry Kasparov when he was just 13, winning some, losing and drawing other matches.
In childhood, he’d get distracted, wander from the table. The film suggests this wasn’t an early manifestation of the head games chess is infamous for. He was just a kid who gets bored sitting still.
As he closes in on the prize he’s pursued all his life, Ree’s movie makes us fret about what might be termed a lack of killer instinct, a propensity to feel the pressure and let it hurt his game.
And then there’s The Big Match, in 2013 in Chennai, India. Ree makes this thrilling and entertaining, setting up Magnus as a solo act faced with a foe whose mastery of the game was built on a big prep team of grand masters and an ability to memorize scores of variations recommended by computer programs. Can the kid get the champion “out of his preparation,” the breathless, Indo-biased chess commentators at the match wonder?
Ree uses graphics to try and let us “see” the board as Magnus does, which doesn’t really work. He exaggerates the few obstacles the boy faced and clings to whatever mysteries there still are about how he does what he does.
And he does something Magnus Carlsen himself would never countenance. He virtually never surprises us, making his film more a celebratory hagiography for proud Norwegians than anything the rest of the world, in and out of chess, can embrace.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Magnus Carlsen, Garry Kasparov, Vishy Anand, Henrik Carlsen
Running time: 1:18