At first glance The Fencer has a lot going for it. Set in Soviet occupied Estonia, it is the oddball tale – partly based on true events – of a renowned fencer (Märt Avandi, known as Endel in the film) on the run from the authorities who sets up a school fencing club in a backwater town. But although the material has real potential for innovative storytelling and historical insight, in director Klaus Härö and writer Anna Heinämaa’s hands it quickly degenerates into a mess of clichés and clunkiness.
The Fencer insists on telling its audience what and how they should be feeling at every moment. From the indulgent strings and piano laden score to the overdone acting and painfully obvious shot choices, Härö wants to endow his project with significance but his clumsy direction instead gives it the aesthetic of a children’s film. The script is no better. Unless something was lost in translation, jarringly bad dialogue is ever-present in The Fencer, such as when a boy’s grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak) tells him to “become a good fencer and everything will be alright” before being seized by Soviet agents and sent to Siberia. Would someone really say that just before going to the gulag?
The love interest – named Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp), although it hardly matters – feels tacked on and underdeveloped, and one is given no real explanation for her romance with Endel other than that they appear to be the only two young, attractive people in town. Characterisation is weak across the board but especially so for the narrow-minded and ideologically doctrinaire headmaster (Hendrik Toompere Sr) and his school assistant (Jaak Prints), traditional ‘baddies’ in the worst one-dimensional sense of the term. More problematically, the hero isn’t very charismatic himself. A fact not helped by the lack of exposition regarding his past and his motivation for training the children.
The Fencer is haunted by an air of implausibility that is hard to shake off: it is difficult to believe that so much effort would be spent on chasing Endel across the Soviet Union solely for being force-conscripted by the Nazis, or that a few children could be trained in the space of several months to triumph at an international fencing competition. Sadly, the cinematography and recreation of a specific time and place are actually rather good, so it’s a shame they have to work with such a clunker of a story and such poor direction. Despite its good intentions and exploration of an unknown piece of Cold War history, The Fencer’s utter lack of nuance makes it an almost unbearable watch.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka