You’ll notice a familiar sports movie set-up in The Fencer: unique circumstance puts a reluctant professional in charge of a rag tag group of amateurs with nothing more than a willingness to learn and a desperate need to belong. The gravity of the film’s historical context and strong direction by Klaus Härö keep the film from relying too heavily on formula, and instead a familiar structure is used to tell a complicated story in an accessible, moving way. In other words, you’re probably not going to confuse The Fencer with The Mighty Ducks or Dodgeball.
The coach at the center of the film, which is set in the early 1950s, is former fencer Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi). Having been drafted into military service by the Germans during World War II, Endel is now considered an enemy of the state by Stalin and the Soviets, who have taken over Estonia following the war. Endel has fled to Haapsulu, Estonia, to become a gym teacher at a small school. When he starts a fencing club for the local children, he becomes increasingly important to the community and the children, several of whom have lost fathers to imprisonment or death.
The Fencer is based on a true story, and while the historical context grounds the film, it doesn’t weigh it down. Anna Heinämaa’s spare, solid script helps to keep things streamlined by focusing on what’s important. The movie doesn’t get bogged down in exposition, but it includes the basic information needed to understand the plot. Where the audience does require details – usually about fencing – the children serve as a built in surrogate, asking questions and learning the sport along with the rest of us over the course of the movie. Unsurprisingly for an inspirational sports movie, the themes are universal as well. Viewers who know nothing about – or have no interest in – fencing or the politics of the post-World War II Soviet Union will still be able to engage easily with the themes of connection, loss, and loyalty.
There’s a lot happening here given that the film has a 95-minute running time: there’s fencing, mentoring, fleeing, and they even manage fit in a kind of sweet love interest. This is unquestionably a plot-driven movie, and it moves quickly, with short scenes and a compact style. The trade-off is that there is little more than surface-level exploration of relationships, or even of characters besides Endel, but the level of depth is appropriate for the film. It never feels like there’s a gaping hole where the dimension should have been. The film is well-balanced, and as Endel, Märt Avandi does a nice job of establishing the connections needed to fill out the story. He also manages to effectively convey his character’s slowly shifting priorities and the weight of his decisions, often doing so without a lot of time in a scene or with another character.
Like many movies that have an inspirational angle, there are elements of The Fencer that do seem a bit pat and formulaic. There is the evil principal with an axe to grind, the devoted grandfather who is also a former fencer, the precocious child who calls Endel out on his bullshit. Given that it’s tough to find information about the real Endel Nelis in English, it’s difficult to tell which elements are real and which have been inserted for dramatic effect. Still, the high stakes and very real consequences keep the film from getting saccharine, even when Endel makes his transition from gruff, reluctant coach to slightly less gruff, moderately more enthusiastic coach.
It may seem like strange praise coming from someone who liked it a lot, but I can tell you that The Fencer’s best feature is, frankly, that it’s efficient. You won’t get a deep dive into fencing or history by watching this film, but you’ll get a complete and satisfying experience as you watch a not quite traditional story unfold in familiar ways.