You don’t need to know anything about real life subject Endel Nelis to predict what happens in The Fencer. Just follow the well worn path forged by so many films portraying teachers inspiring their flock while courting controversy with authority.
The introductory titles explain to us that during World War 2, Estonia had been occupied by Nazi Germany, with many of its male civilians drafted into the German army. After the war, the country came under Soviet Union occupation and those in the German Army were subsequently considered criminals.
It’s in these oppressive times of the early 1950s that the story takes place. Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), arrives in Haapsalu, Estonia, having left Leningrad to escape the secret police. He finds work as a physical education teacher where he starts teaching the students fencing, his one great love in life.
The school’s principal (Hendrik Toompere) takes an instant disliking to Nelis, but since he has no joy halting the new teacher’s hugely popular fencing lessons, he decides to dig into his past.
When his students catch wind of a national fencing tournament in Leningrad, they pressure Nelis into entering them in the competition. He is faced with the dilemma of fulfilling their dreams at the risk of losing his own freedom by returning to the city he fled.
Hmmm, I wonder what will happen.
Klaus Härö’s direction throughout is so formal and rigid, it’s safe to say the film is unlikely to prove as inspiring as the hero of the story. .
Avandi proves a bland presence as Nelis, barely shifting gears in his delivery despite the obvious arc that sees him initially awkward and resistant to the children, many of them orphans, before forming a bond and becoming a revered father figure to them.
Mild attempts are made to introduce a romantic sub plot, which feels as hackneyed as everything else. Of course, it has to begin with Nelis putting his hands on his ever so amenable school colleague Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp) and guiding her through the first movements of fencing. Yawn!
At least the inevitable climactic fencing scene involves the story’s most charismatic cast member. One of the youngest students, the plucky Marta (Liisa Koppel) steps in to lend some much needed girl power to the story, and Koppel commands the screen whenever she’s in view.
The film’s other chief asset is Tuomo Hutri’s cinematography. Shot in a golden straw-coloured glow, the film looks a treat. Less helpful is Gert Wilden’s score, which pushes its way to the foreground any time it looks like something important might happen.
The Fencer is the kind of worthy film that used to nab an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film in more conservative days of old. It actually got shortlisted this year, but was pushed out of the final five by far more distinctive and original films.
Scandinavia has produced some cracking films in recent years, but this one is far too meek and safe for its own good.
The Fencer is in national release from November 24
Richard Leathem @dickiegee