Reviewed by: Paul Risker

Benjamin Ree: 'A lot of documentaries are too long and I wanted to have a documentary where you feel satisfied, but you still want a bit more'
"Ree embraces the music as a collaborator, a voice that can channel the feelings of both the character and the story." | Photo: © Scanpix - Morten Rakke

Benjamin Ree’s sophomore feature documentary tells the story of Norwegian chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, popularly referred to as the “Mozart of Chess”. The film charts Carlsen’s journey from childhood, through home video footage, to his 2013 World Chess Championship match against the incumbent champion Viswanathan Anand.

While the focus of the documentary seems to be on the individual, the growth of the connection between the person and the game also has a humanising dimension. Ree brings chess out of the intellectual shadows to reveal the human side of the game, where outsiders or introverts find a place to belong, or a sense of purpose. Meanwhile, the success and failure of victory or defeat taps directly into raw human aspiration and personal endeavour. Here chess is not only a battle of the minds, it can be a stifled emotional battle where Ree captures a compelling look at the storm of feelings beneath the calm exterior, revealing signs of vulnerability, and the human difficulty in hiding one’s emotions. Another strength of the documentary is the filmmaker’s succinct approach that is coupled with the shades of drama that surface by way of the score, which becomes an integral part of the film's identity.

Ree embraces the music as a collaborator, a voice that can channel the feelings of both the character and the story. While on one level this underpins the drama, it simultaneously captures Carlsen’s inner emotions. Here the music becomes a form of dialogue, an emotional expression that allows us a deeper connection to this aspirational story as both two personality types and two approaches, technology (Anand) and human instinct (Carlsen) ultimately collide over the chess board at the film’s dramatic conclusion. But even in the scenes leading to the World Chess Championship match, Ree uses the music to create an emotional connection between his subject and his audience. And just as Ree presents the emotional side of chess, by employing the music to allow us to sense or even feel Carlsen’s emotions, it roots our experience in both the mental and the emotional.

Ree also allows themes rise to the surface, from the clash of technology and preparation versus the purity of human instinct, to the fundamental need for connection and disconnection, perfectly embodied by Carlsen the instinctive introvert. These themes serve to deepen our interest, working in tandem with the character of Carlsen himself, perhaps suggesting that the quiet intellectual is a seductive archetype that compels our interest with a natural ease.

In spite of everything raised so far, perhaps the overwhelming success of the film can be credited to something simpler. Entering the cinema, I knew the outcome of the 2013 Carlsen-Anand World Championship match, and yet as I became lost in the moment of the drama as it unfolded in front of me, any prior knowledge was forgotten. Ree’s film celebrates the power of storytelling, specifically the potential to immerse us in the moment that is uniquely special, amid an aspirational and, ultimately, transformational journey for his subject that shows no person has a permanently fixed identity.

The film will be available on digital, VoD, Blu-ray & DVD from December 12

Reviewed on: 07 Dec 2016
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Documenting the 'Mozart of Chess'.
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Director: Benjamin Ree

Writer: Linn-Jeanethe Kyed, Benjamin Ree

Starring: Magnus Carlsen, Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand

Year: 2016

Runtime: 78 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: Norway

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