'Fair Play': Karlovy Vary Review

Fairplay Film - P 2014
Courtesy of Negativ

Fairplay Film - P 2014

Czechs and drugs and rotten rogues.

This polished coming-of-age drama from Czech writer-director Andrea Sedlackova revolves around the secret state-sponsored doping of athletes in the old Eastern Bloc.

Long before drug scandals ended the careers of Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones or Ben Johnson, steroid abuse took place on an industrial scale among state-controlled sports teams behind the Iron Curtain. These secret doping regimes were designed to turn athletes into medal-winning propaganda weapons for the Soviet system, with scant regard for legality or long-term medical consequences. Set in 1984, Fair Play fictionalizes one such story in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, during the build-up to the LA Olympics.

Premiered at Karlovy Vary film festival, this Czech-Slovak-German co-production was written and directed by Andrea Sedlackova, whose background is mostly in editing, with credits including the Oscar-nominated Joyeux Noel. A politically charged morality play wrapped inside a fairly universal rites-of-passage story, Fair Play has enough emotional conflict and technical polish to interest both overseas festivals and niche distributors. Like other recent films reflecting on life in the old Eastern Bloc, such as The Lives of Others or In the Shadow, it also has solid credentials to be a potential submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar.

Judit Bardos, a Slovakian beauty with Keira Knightley looks, stars as gifted teenage sprinter Anna. Under the watchful eye of her stern trainer Bohdan (Roman Luknar), she is singled out by government agents for fast-track promotion involving “specialized care” from state doctors. As the daughter of  political dissidents—an absent father who fled to Western Europe and a mother Irena (Ana Geislerova) whose own sports career was cut short after she protested against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968—Anna is in a vulnerable position. If she refuses her regular injections of the anabolic steroid Stromba, she will be dropped from the state athletics team and denied a university education.

When Anna begins to suffer nasty side effects—rampant body hair, irregular menstrual cycle, explosive mood swings, collapsing at training sessions—she defies her handlers and stops taking the steroids. State security agents respond by pressuring friends and family to coerce Anna back into line, with some buckling under blackmail. This is the moral crux of the movie: the high price paid by brave individuals who make a stand against corrupt regimes where even doctors, parents and lovers are all compromised.

Grounded in strong performances by Bardos and Geislerova, who both radiate a kind of wounded intensity, Fair Play is a conventional story of heroes, victims and villains, with scant room for moral or political ambivalence. A little more complexity might have given Sedlackova’s period drama the more authentically murky texture of real life. But this is still a gripping tale of grace under pressure, crisply shot and handsomely packaged.

Production company: Nevativ

Starring: Judit Bardos, Ana Geislerova, Roman Luknar, Eva Josefikova

Director: Andrea Sedlackova

Writer: Andrea Sedlackova

Producers: Katerina Cerna, Pavel Strnad

Cinematographer: Jan Baset Stritezsky

Editor: Jakub Hejna

Music: David Solar, Miro Zbirka

Sales company: Intramovies SRL

No rating, 94 minutes