Magnus (FilmRise, NR)

It presents the portrait of a young man blessed with extraordinary talent who became known as “the Mozart of chess.”

Magnus Carlsen recently won his third consecutive world championship in chess, adding to a string of accomplishments that include becoming a chess grandmaster at the age of 13 and winning his first world championship at the age of 22. While chess tournaments may not be headline news in the United States (interest peaked in the 1970s with the triumphs of Bobby Fisher over the Russian Boris Spassky, played out against the backdrop of the Cold War), they are followed by millions worldwide, including many ardent fans here in the United States.

Carlsen’s recent triumph makes the release of Benjamin Ree’s documentary Magnus all the more timely. Drawing primarily on home video, news footage, and contemporary interviews, it presents the portrait of a young man blessed with extraordinary talent (and a supportive family) who became known as “the Mozart of chess” for his intuitive sense of the game and his precocious accomplishments. Carlsen has also enjoyed some success as a model, and was named one of the “sexiest men of 2013” by Cosmopolitan, underlining the popular appeal of his youthful good looks and shy public manner.

Chess fans will certainly want to see Magnus, although more for its cataloging of his many triumphs and occasional setbacks than for any insights offered into chess. Magnus remains resolutely on the surface, never delving into the details of any particular chess match, let alone discussing how Magnus learned to play (and anyone familiar with chess can tell you that even prodigies have to put in their time), or what, if anything, distinguishes his approach from that of other top players.

We see a lot of footage of young Magnus, both in the chess context and elsewhere, thanks to ample home video material. It’s adorable to watch a child so lost in his own thoughts that he runs straight through a high jump barrier rather than jumping over it. But such self-absorption also has its drawbacks, as is evident from the revelation that Magnus was bullied at school. We also learn his family indulged his tendency to withdraw into his own thoughts, and that they act as a strong support group today—but what affect those choices had on family dynamics (Magnus has two sisters, who appear only as supporting characters) is one of many questions left unexamined.

If you are not already knowledgeable about chess, you won’t become more so by watching Magnus. It’s still eminently watchable (and goodness knows, so is Carlsen himself) and professionally produced, but Ree’s choice to favor attractive surfaces over deep questions means that Magnus often feels more like the work of a PR agency than that of a documentary filmmaker. | Sarah Boslaugh

Magnus is distributed on VOD on all platforms by FilmRise.

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