The Fencer

 

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A feel-good tale plays out in Estonia in an era of historical hardship.

 
The Fencer

 

I understand that the director of this Estonian tale, Finland's Klaus Härö, directed in 2002 a film entitled Elina: As If I Wasn't There which was a work intended for children.  I mention that here because, although the central figure in The Fencer is a real person, Endel Nelis, whose story might have seemed to lend itself to a film for adults, Anna Heinämaa's screenplay is at heart simplistic. If modern children are still prepared to take an interest in a tale set in 1952 about a sports teacher training his young pupils in fencing and leading them to Leningrad to compete in an all-Soviet competition, then this film will have found its natural audience.

 

The teacher, Nelis, is played by Märt Avandi and when we first meet him it is in Haapsalu, Estonia, where he is asked to run the sports club in the secondary school which employs him. With the country being occupied by the Russians following war-time control by the Germans, these are disturbing times and Nelis himself is hiding out since the secret police are looking for him on account of the fact that earlier he had been conscripted by the Germans. However, this is kept essentially in the background, adding interest but nevertheless yielding pride of place to a feel-good story about the kids taking to fencing and being allowed to  compete in the big time even though Nelis's return to Leningrad could place him in danger.

 

The basis in actuality (Nelis lived from 1925 to 1993) leads one to expect a more realistic film. Here we feel that we are in the world of fictional cinema, the kind which piles on all the standard drama in the competition that provides the film's climax having earlier incorporated a fictional romance between Nelis and his fellow teacher, Kadri played by Ursula Ratasepp. Some adults will of course, be only too happy to enjoy the film on this level, and it is competently made with Joonas Koff leading the way among the child actors. There is, however, a cameo as a grandfather by Lembit Ulfsack and the magnificent star of Tangerines (2013) briefly brings a touch of deeper credibility to The Fencer. But if the film works - and it is consistent enough to do so - it is on a decidedly lighter and lower level than one might have expected.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Märt Avandi, Ursula Ratasepp, Hendrik Toompere, Joonas Koff, Lilsa Koppel, Kirill Käro, Ann-Lisett Rebane, Egert Kadastu, Lembit Ulfsack.

 

Dir Klaus Härö, Pro Kai Nordberg, Kaarle Aho, Jorg Bundschuh and Ivo Felt, Screenplay Anna Heinämaa, Ph Tuomo Hutri, Pro Des Jaagup Toomet, Ed Tambet Tasuja and Ueli Christen, Music Gert Wilden Jr, Costumes Tiina Kaukanen.

 

Making Noises/Kick Film/Allfilm/BR/ARTE/YLE/ERR-StudioCanal.
99 mins. Finland/Germany/Estonia. 2015. Rel: 30 September 2016. Cert. PG.