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THE FENCER (2015) review

January 4, 2018

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written by: Anna Heinämaa
produced by: Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho
directed by: Klaus Härö
rated: unrated
runtime: 98 min.
release date: March 13, 2015 (Estonia/Finland), March 8 & 11, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL) and January 5-11, 2017 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

The kind of  ‘based on a true story’ I gravitate to are ones which inform viewers of a person or event that the world would mostly likely have never heard of. “The Fencer” falls in that category. Directed by Klaus Härö (“Letters to Father Jacob” from 2009 and “Mother of Mine” from 2005), the film was selected as the Finnish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy last year, but was not nominated, even though it made the December shortlist of nine films. However, it should be added to the list of the many great foreign films wind up not making the cut on the road to Oscar, since it gives a voice to a specific time and place that rarely gets heard. 

“The Fencer” takes place in Haapsula, Estonia in the Soviet Union of the early 1950s, during Stalin’s reign. The focus is on a young sports instructor with a mysterious past named Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), who is teaching the young children in his charge fencing. The mostly fatherless children (due to Russian occupation) are eager to learn but lack confidence, yet Endel lacks patience and is frustrated by the lack of support he receives from the school’s stubborn principal (Hendrik Toompere), who secretly investigates Endel’s past. Lacking equipment, Endel receives a generous donation from his friend, Alexey (Kirill Käro), and soon the children are no longer practicing with tree branches.  As they improve in their fencing skills, they become attached to Endel – as does Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp) another teacher at the school –  as they children begin to look to him as something of a father figure. In return, he too begins to care for them dearly as they have opened his heart. When the children yearn to compete in a tournament in Leningrad, which could jeopardize Endel’s future (since that is where he has run away from), Ended must make a choice that will either risk his fate or disappoint the children.

 

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What’s most intriguing about “The Fencer” is the setting of post-WWII Estonia during the final years of the Stalin dictatorship, where we’re placed in a village where people have a reason for their silence and withdrawn dispositions. Endel is the outsider who comes in and disturbs that silence (it’s a longstanding trope, but it works) and his education and directness – as “the new hire” – easily rubs the rigid principal the wrong way. What’s great though is that Endel is far from an angel or a savior, which is something we gradually learn along the way, thanks to Avandi’s portrayal, which becomes one of the many draws here.

At the same time, Toompere’s Principal isn’t just a black-and-white, one-dimensional antagonist. It’s understandable how and why he dismisses Endel, since we get just enough of his point of view to thankfully escape a cliched characterization. His retaliation towards Endel seems in character, considering he’s an employee who’s threatening the status quo, maybe even justifiable based on what we know of him. We could easily hate him, but there’s something curious with what Toompere does with the role that prevents me from checking off that box.

The acting throughout is engaging and authentic, often feeling very much in tune with the kind you’d find in classic Hollywood movies. Since children play a large part in this movie, there are the expected tender, adorable and precocious performances, but special mention must be given to Joonas Koff as an insecure teen and Liisa Koppel, who plays the scrappy Marta, both of whom deliver some great work in two key child roles.

 

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The way the story unfolds is a joy, since we think we know where it’s going to go, but Heinämaa’s character development and narrative provides subtle unexpected turns that are sweet, earnest and endearing. This is first noticed when we learn how Endel arrived at the idea of teaching the children fencing. It’s a humorous yet resourceful development that increased my interest and left me with a smile. The more we learn about his past and especially how he protects it, the more interesting Endel is and when an old friend and fencing coach Aleksei (Kirill Karo) arrives in town, another mystery and additional intrigue to a story we think we can predict. We care about Endel, because of his developed devotion to the children and therefore when he’s threatened with banishment to Siberia, our concern is not just for him or the children, but also the children’s families and the moral of the school and the overall community.

The burgeoning romance between Endel and Kadri never feels heavy-handed or too overwhelming, but sweetly played and never overshadowing our love for the children. Like so many of these stories (from the recent “Queen of Katwe”to the classic “Bad News Bears”), there’s a climactic competition in the third act finale. It’s a time in the film where once again expectations are subverted as it escapes a saccharine conclusion.

The ‘inspirational teacher/coach’ story could be considered a subgenre of the timeless coming-of-age genre, especially those that fall under true stories. They are typically inspiring and moving tales, and although there’s a certain predictability as to where the story is headed, but the screenplay from Anna Heinämaa is strong and smart, realized with Härö’s assured hand. Combined, the two are a pairing that make “The Fencer” a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience, akin to old-fashioned underdog tales.

“The Fencer” is elevated by fine cinematography from Tuomo Hutri and a beautiful score by Gert Wilden Jr., “The Fencer” is a wonderful, inspirational film that smartly relies on strong characterization and a compelling story. The film will be seen as obvious by some, but sometimes a crowd-pleasing, feel-good drama can hit all the familiar notes in an entirely manipulative way, yet still be immensely appealing nevertheless and that’s kind of surprising for a historically minded feature.

 

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RATING: ****

 

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