Film Review: The Fencer (★★½)

Fencer USAAround this time of year, it’s common to see dramas centered around inspiring men, especially those based on real life. Indeed, the proliferation of biopics in Hollywood over the years has contributed to the popularization of the term “Oscar bait”. But this formulaic style of filmmaking isn’t only the domain of Hollywood, as evidenced by The Fencer, the latest film from Finnish director Klaus Härö.

The Fencer is based on the true story of Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), a young man who fled Russia’s Stalin regime and moved to Estonia during the Russian occupation of the 1950s. Formerly a competitive fencer, Nelis found himself working as a schoolteacher in a quiet village in his new home. Having little prior experience or affinity for teaching, the initial transition proves difficult. But gradually, he develops a connection with his troubled students by introducing them to the sport that he loves. Establishing a new fencing club at the school, he starts to attract the attention of persons both near and far, some of whom pose a dangerous threat from his past.

Freshly minted as a Golden Globe nominee, The Fencer is a quintessential story about a relatively ordinary man who finds the courage to become a selfless hero. Featuring a likable protagonist, pristine cinematography and an engaging story, it delivers much of what you’d expect from a prestige biopic. Indeed, the film is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, providing wholesome entertainment that ultimately makes you feel good about yourself.

In the lead role, Märt Avandi embodies this goodness, with a vulnerability and kindness that shines through in the performance. The character is the film’s most complex, and Avandi skilfully charts his transition from uncomfortable outsider to admirable father figure. There’s a subtlety to his acting that proves vital to setting the pleasant tone of the film.

Indeed, “The Fencer” thrives on the back of its performances. And in that regard, one of its greatest assets is its cast of child actors. Their effortless rapport with Avandi gives the film a dynamism that it wouldn’t have otherwise. And with such minimal acting experience behind them, they are impressively able to convey the full spectrum of emotions required for their characters, most of whom have been orphaned as a result of the Soviet occupation. Their inner sadness is just as palpable as their enthusiasm for fencing and their teacher.
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But despite the commendable visual craft and the quality of the acting, the conventional plot leaves you with a feeling of considerable disappointment. Taken from a remarkable true story about an honorable man, the script feels like merely a cursory glance at history. Anna Heinämaa’s script lacks the world-building specificity that would give an understanding of the everyday struggles under Soviet rule. And in failing to fully illuminate the obstacles our titular fencer has overcome, the film cheats itself of greater emotional impact.

During a season when we’re constantly reminded that similar narratives are a dime a dozen, The Fencer finds itself in the unfortunate place of being good, but not good enough. The film works well as inspirational drama, but it crucially falters as an exploration of history and as a character study. In summary, The Fencer is respectable, well-acted and ultimately heartwarming, but it’s also forgettable.

The Fencer is the Finnish submission for the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.