'The Fencer' ('Miekkailija'): Helsinki Review

The Fencer - H 2015
Courtesy of Little Film Company
Though handsome and atmospheric, this Cold War swordplay drama is too much of a blunt instrument.

Finland’s official Oscar contender offers a fictionalized take on a real-life fencing teacher who took a stand against Stalinist oppression in Soviet-era Estonia.

A local story with universal resonance, Finland’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar race is a solid period drama set in the small Baltic state of Estonia during the dark days of Soviet occupation. Given that three out of director Klaus Haro’s previous four features were nominated as Finnish Oscar contenders, The Fencer is hardly a surprising choice. But much like its three predecessors, it will likely prove a little too staid and conventional to make the final shortlist.

Borrowing some familiar tropes from inspirational teacher-hero dramas like Dead Poets Society, Anna Heinamaa’s screenplay ticks all the right middlebrow boxes, but ultimately fails to deliver on character depth or moral complexity. Already released domestically to critical acclaim, The Fencer screened at Helsinki film festival last week in the Finnish Film Affair sidebar dedicated to locally produced features.

In early 1952, a haunted young man named Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi) arrives in the backwater town of Haapsalu in Estonia, which has been under harsh Russian Communist rule since the end of World War II. He takes a job as sports teacher at the local high school where, despite an apparent dislike for his young students, he starts a fencing club which proves wildly popular. Charmed out of his frosty shell by cherubic moppet Marta (Liisa Koppel) and sullen teenage rebel Jaan (Joonas Koff), Nelis inevitably starts to warm towards these kids, and begins a hesitant romance with his co-worker Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp).

But conflict looms in the shape of the school’s authoritarian killjoy principal (Hendrik Toompere), who believes swordplay smacks of pre-revolutionary feudalism, urging Nelis to teach sports "better suited to the proletariat." When local citizens override him, the thwarted headmaster begins digging for dirt in his popular new teacher’s shadowy past. In this paranoid Stalinist climate, with the secret police watching everybody, a simple denunciation can lead to arrest, exile and even execution.

It transpires that Nelis has good reason to lie low in Estonia, as far from Moscow’s tentacles as possible. But when his students begin pressuring him to enter them in a prestigious all-Soviet fencing tournament in Leningrad, he is torn between dashing their hopes and risking his life for sporting glory. We already know which path he will choose, of course. Layering cliché upon cliché, Ratasepp gets the thankless role of the over-emotional female partner vainly trying to prevent her beloved from committing a reckless but noble act of self-sacrifice. "I’ve been running all my life and I’m tired of it," he says, "I can’t let the children down." Groan.

In its final act, The Fencer becomes a race against time as Nelis and his plucky team fight a heavily symbolic battle against an army of better trained, better funded Russian rivals. At this point the film stops being Dead Poets Society and turns into a classic underdog sports drama in the spirit of The Bad News Bears. No spoilers, but the outcome is never really in doubt, given how crudely Haro draws his spirited Estonian heroes and brutish Russian villains. Gert Wilden’s bombastic score cranks up several gears here, directing audience sympathies with a sledgehammer touch.

Tastefully shot in muted autumnal tones by Tuomo Hutri, The Fencer is a handsomely crafted slice of fictionalized history with the feel of a deluxe TV production. Haro’s afterword confirms that the real Nelis lived to see Estonian independence, dying in 1993, while the fencing club he founded remains active. But the man and his motivations remain oddly elusive in this blankly heroic, clunkingly predictable portrait.

Production companies: Making Movies, Allfilm, Kick Film

Cast: Mart Avandi, Liisa Koppel, Joonas Koff, Ursula Ratasepp, Hendrik Toompere

Director: Klaus Haro

Screenwriter: Anna Heinamaa

Cinematographer: Tuomo Hutri

Editors: Tambet Tasuja, Ueli Christen

Music: Gert Wilden Jr.

Producers: Ivo Felt, Kai NordbergKaarle Aho, Jorg Bundschuh

Sales company: The Little Film Company

Unrated, 99 minutes