Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Fencer (2015) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Outside Moscow there's a lone German tank, often up to its turret in snow. It's said to symbolise how for Hitler's army advanced before it was stopped. It's easy to understand, then, the way that the Soviet Union was reeling when the war ended, the shock at the threat this unconquered nation had faced. Perhaps this, in turn, makes it easier to understand the aggressive purges that followed - but understanding does little to alleviate the horror of what they did to communities right across the union as anyone who aroused the least suspicion of collaboration was taken away.
The impact of this on the small Estonian town of Haapsalu is slow to reveal itself. We don't see many adults; the focus is on the children crowded into the classrooms of School Number Two. There, a young man from Leningrad (Märt Avandi) has arrived to take up a new teaching role. He's no good with children, he says. He doesn't know how to explain anything to them. "Be patient," says the sweet colleague (Ursula Ratasepp) who has taken a shine to him. He doesn't know how to run a sports club without equipment, he laments. "Well," says the headmaster, "you're the one with the degree from Leningrad."
Endel is a fish out of water. He's out here in the middle of nowhere only because it's unsafe to be living where someone might recognise him. But he can't stay away from his true love, fencing, and when he finds a sword in a cupboard he simply has to practice for a while. Once he's spotted by young Marta (Liisa Koppel, the film's best discovery), it's only a matter of time until he finds himself running a fencing club which the kids go crazy for. But is he in danger of blowing his cover?
A mixture of cold war paranoia tale and school sporting ambition drama, The Fencer has to work had to keep its balance. It's aided by quiet and (mostly) well judged performances, good pacing and atmospheric cinematography from Tuomo Hutri. Where lesser filmmakers aim to make magic with the long light, Härö waits until afterwards, when Hutri can conjure something less distinct and more distinctive from the dusk, from the thickening mist. Even indoors, we never lose our sense of the isolation of this place - and yet cars come in he night with uniformed men, as surely as if we were in the Russian capital.
Endel's story is a true one, though hitherto little known in the west, and The Fencer sticks fairly closely to the facts. This helps balance out a tendency to be just little too Disney-esque as far as the children's story is concerned. Though bleaker events are presented with some care and we see no direct violence, there are no narrative punches pulled. The weak point is the headmaster, who is too crudely villainous throughout, despite an attempt to explain his behaviour in his final scene. He's a bum note in what is otherwise a much more sophisticated tune. This keeps the film from attaining the heights it might have reached, but it's still well worth seeing.Reviewed on: 23 Jan 2016
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