Not the landscape gardening movie you might fear from its title, this wholeheartedly sincere and rather lavish Finnish drama was in fact its homeland’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. It failed to garner even a nomination, but any disparaging quality indicators should be cast aside, as director Klaus Härö sets out to absolutely enthral with this tale of duty, persecution and respect in the confines of a remote Estonian school.
Fleeing from the Soviet secret police, the mysterious Endel (Märt Avandi) arrives as a sports teacher in the rural town of Haapsalu, where he begins to teach his pupils the elegant art of fencing. Meeting with disapproval from the faculty but with gratitude from parents, Endel’s fencing class soon becomes the beating heart of the school, and the one place in which its students – most orphaned by the Soviet occupation – can find support and self-expression. As their skills improve, the desire mounts for them to attend an inter-school fencing competition in Leningrad – leaving Endel with a life-threatening choice to make: to risk his freedom for the happiness of his pupils, or disappoint them in the name of survival.
Relatively small-scale despite the breadth of its period setting, The Fencer (Miekkailija) serves well as both a thought provoking Soviet fugitive drama, and a sort of requisite ‘teacher versus the establishment’ tale. Tying both elements together is Avandi, whose guarded but thoughtful performance proves well-balanced and heartfelt. Bolstered in no small part by insightful writing from Anna Heinämaa, Avandi capably leads Härö’s tale, without ever threatening to become too flashy or domineering in his performance – it’s a calculated turn that perfectly suits the tone that The Fencer’s script and direction serve so well.
It’s in its overall story that The Fencer feels closest to being underwhelming; somewhat predictable story beats are prevented from falling flat only by the quality of everything else at play. Härö brings a strong visual game to the table, though, without taking the film into flashy or, thankfully, soft focus territory, while Gert Wilden Jr.’s score perfectly punctuates each lunge and parry with precision. It’s a polished effort, and one you can understand Finland considering as its Oscar candidate for the year; sure, it’s not quite the Mr. Holland’s Opus of Soviet era fencing, but it nevertheless serves as a moving and admirably genuine drama.
The Fencer is in cinemas nationwide from Friday, September 30th; rated PG. Check out the trailer below.