The Fencer

Scott Wallace
21st Nov 2016

A chilly, ramshackle school in Estonia is the setting for The Fencer. The Finnish production is, on the surface, a fish-out-of-water sports drama, but with its subtle and nuanced screenplay also investigates the fallout of the Second World War on the Soviet Union. While it is based on a true story, at times it indulges in the recognisable tropes of the genre, while at other times sharply diverging to fascinating effect.

Märt Avandi plays Endel Nelis, who in the film's first moments is accepted to teach sports lessons at a school in the remote Estonian village of Haapsalu. An off-handed remark by the school's principal on his experience as a fencer slowly unearths Endel's former life, and the persecution (or retribution) from which he is fleeing. As Endel reconnects with his sporting passion, instructing the children in fencing, he risks his safety to bring some joy to their unkind lives.

The political aspect of The Fencer is fascinating. Characters are trapped in a stentorian silence of forced complicity, tiptoeing around their "comrades" to avoid arousing any suspicion that they do not share the same ideals. Violence and disappearances occur under the cover of night, permeating the film with a stark paranoia. That paranoia has its foil, though, in the coarse but passionate Endel.

Avandi's performance is superb, eloquently capturing the complexities of the character, as well as the personal growth he undergoes from being a sort of emotional hermit, to performing an act of utter selflessness. Hendrik Toompere is also terrific as the school's principal, bringing pathos to a role that in other hands could have been a one-dimensional villain.

The film is short, and very tightly paced, to the point where some of the characters feel somewhat underdeveloped. The most egregious is Ursula Ratasepp as fellow teacher Kadri, who, despite a sweetness and tenderness is never given the opportunity to develop into anything more than a love interest for Endel. While it is a fascinating and well-told story, at times The Fencer is marred by a slight shallowness that does not quite do the best service to its real life subjects.

Despite its few missteps, though, The Fencer brings subject matter to the screen that is not often seen. Regardless of how you feel about the film, you are sure to learn a thing or two about fencing. The taut, engaging screenplay, along with sumptuous visuals and a light-footed orchestral soundtrack make this a hugely enjoyable movie, even if it starts to fade as the credits roll.

The Fencer opens exclusive to Palace Cinemas on Thursday November 24th.