The ‘whimsical teacher inspires disadvantaged kids’ movie is back – now with swordplay!
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Less than a decade after WWII, Estonia is still re-establishing itself under a Soviet Union takeover, and punishing the Nazi soldiers responsible for its downfall. Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), a young man with a penchant for the art of fencing, returns to his hometown after being forced to flee Leningrad. He finds solace at a local school, and begins teaching the children his knowledge and passion of fencing, which becomes a form of expression and hope for them. Soon beloved as a role model, his bubble bursts when his past catches up to him.
We’ve all seen the inspirational teacher movie a million times, and much in the same way that Endel’s former life threatens to undo all his good work throughout The Fencer, director Klaus Härö can never shake the trappings of a worn-out subgenre. All your favourite clichés make an appearance here. The underprivileged kids in desperate need of a father figure. The killjoy principal antagonising the class’s obvious progression, purely because the new teacher’s unorthodox methods seem radical. The build up to a big competition at the climax. There’s even a love interest in a fellow teacher. Ho hum.
But Härö’s delicacy lies in the details. The seldom explored Stalin era of oppression in Northern Europe is an interesting backdrop to a formulaic story, even if it isn’t quite explored to its full potential. The rural, still somewhat war-torn Estonian village is wonderfully shot, with a dull grey melancholia hanging in the outside air – everywhere, except of course the fencing gym, where light and colour comes to life along with the children’s hopes and dreams. The fencing itself is particularly joyous to watch; orchestrated with great precision and passion, it genuinely feels like we’re learning something along with the kids.
It’s these scenes, along with the little moments of suspense effectively peppered throughout that let The Fencer shine at times. Härö wrings a great deal of tension out of small, sudden revelations that indicate that Endel’s hideout may finally be compromised. Overall, The Fencer pokes just enough holes in the formula to make it one worth seeing.
The Fencer is available in Australian cinemas from November 24
Image courtesy of Palace Films