Reviews - The Fencer
Reviewed By Chris Coombes
A young man, Endel Nelis, arrives in Haapsalu, Estonia, in the early 1950s. He has left Leningrad to escape the secret police, having been conscripted by the Nazi invaders during the second World War and now finding himself to be considered an enemy of the people by the Soviets who have assumed control of Estonia.
Endel becomes a teacher in a grim, cold, ill-equipped school, and founds a sports club for his students. Whilst he seems at first utterly unsuited to teaching, Endel becomes a father figure to his students and passes on his passion by teaching them fencing. This exacerbates a conflict with the school's principal who then investigates Endel's background. Endel starts to care about the children and act in their interest; most are orphans as a result of the Russian occupation. At the same time he develops a close, loving relationship with another teacher and this helps him settle in to his new environment. As the children become more skilled at their sport they ask to participate in a national fencing tournament in Leningrad, and Endel has to choose: risk everything to take the children to Leningrad or put his safety first and let them down.
The film is based (I suspect loosely) on true events. It is very beautiful with some lovely shots of the countryside, and it effectively evokes the bleak circumstances of the early 1950s. We are left in no doubt that the lives of the children and their teacher are plagued by fear and uncertainty.
However, I found the film disappointing; there is very little character development, the plot is extremely predictable and slow and the music score is jarringly light and romantic given the nature of the issues being discussed. I learned about events that happened in a place I have given little thought to before, and for that I am grateful but I came away feeling that the topic and its treatment were at odds with each other. Clearly mine was a minority view.
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