A fab­u­lous fenc­ing film? Touché

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - TARA BRADY

Its 1952, and, in an ef­fort to evade the se­cret po­lice, for­mer cham­pion fencer En­del Nelis (Mart Avandi) ar­rives in the far-flung Es­to­nian town of Haap­salu to teach sports at the local sec­ondary school. When much of the gym­nas­tic equip­ment dis­ap­pears for mil­i­tary us­age, the young man re­luc­tantly starts a fenc­ing club which proves to be spec­tac­u­larly pop­u­lar, de­spite warn­ings from the school’s buz­zkill prin­ci­pal that the sport is not ideally “suited to the pro­le­tariat”.

Be­fore you can say “Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety with sabres,” the frosty En­del warms to his stu­dents – par­tic­u­larly ea­ger Marta (Li­isa Kop­pel) and rowdy Jaan (Joonas Koff) – and even em­barks of a slow-burn­ing ro­mance with a teach­ing col­league Kadri (Ur­sula Ratasepp). In time, the kids are skilled enough to com­pete in a Soviet tour­na­ment in Len­ingrad. But will En­del jeop­ar­dise him­self for the dreams of his charges?

This hand­somely made his­tor­i­cal drama –the Fin­nish en­try for the Best For­eign Lan­guage Film at last year’s Academy Awards – faith­fully fol­lows the beats of not one but two feel­good gen­res. It’s un­likely but in­spi­ra­tional teacher shares DNA with Jack Black in School of Rock; its sport­ing un­der­dogs have much in com­mon with, well, any sports movie you care to men­tion.

The film nois­ily rails against Es­to­nia’s Soviet his­tory – we are re­peat­edly re­minded that many of the chil­dren have been or­phaned due to the Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion - but re­mains rather quiet about other de­tails: En­del is a wanted man be­cause he served with the Wehrma­cht, al­beit as a con­script. Per­haps that is why the fic­tion­alised En­del re­mains some­thing of an enigma through­out.

Still, the his­tor­i­cal con­text does add a unique tex­ture to the fa­mil­iar tra­jec­tory of Anna Heina­maa’s sturdy screen­play, as does Tuomo Hutri’s win­try pho­tog­ra­phy. Klaus Härö’s stately di­rec­tion changes gear to bring white-knuckle thrills to the fi­nal fenc­ing bout.

Get to the point: Märt Avandi in The Fencer

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