Finnish director Klaus Härö has made a hobby of collecting awards at festivals, an activity he has been practicing almost non-stop since his 2002 film Elina: As if I Wasn’t There. Now, with his new film The Fencer, the collection has a new chance to grow, following a Golden Globe nomination and making it to the Oscar short list (but not to the final 5). So, what is the fuss about?
Endel (Märt Avandi) is the new sports teacher at a small Estonian village, after leaving Leningrad in some kind of rush. As he starts teaching fencing to the local children, and falling in love with a fellow colleague, his mysterious past comes back to haunt him. When faced with the decision of running away to safety or taking the children to a tournament in Leningrad, Endel decides to go and face his fears once and for all.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Tuomo Hutri, The Fencer stands out for its great child performances, namely Joonas Koff, who plays Jaan. The soundtrack, minimal and melancholic, does its job with efficiency and sobriety, a much welcome breath of fresh air when most contemporary film music is forced down our throats to make us feel something. But despite its good looks and sounds, The Fencer falls short of being a memorable film.
The script by Anna Heinämaa, partially based around the life of Estonian fencer Endel Nelis, ultimately fails its main character with an indecisive tone. What begins as a gripping tale of a big city man stuck in a small town, fighting Soviet bureaucracy and closed minded school administrations, then turns into a political narrative sprinkled with romance, before arriving at a been-there-done-that underdog sports denouement, where the small Estonian school team triumphs over the Moscow Evil school. If in the beginning one sympathizes with Endel’s fight against the system, by the end we couldn’t care less if he gets sent to prison because he couldn’t deal with being bullied by a 7 year old girl. This added to a competent but far from breathtaking direction stops The Fencer from rising above the ordinary, which is a shame considering the story’s potential and the underexplored Soviet occupation theme. Kudos for using Estonian and Russian correctly, though.
There are better European films from the last year kicking about, but if you like watching people with giant needles in their hands, and want something to clean the palate after all those Christmas blockbusters, by all means, go see The Fencer. It’s short and pleasant, just don’t hope for an epiphany.
The Fencer will play at the Glasgow Film Festival. For more information on the festival, as well as playing times, please check http://visitgff.glasgowfilm.org/