I wish I’d known The Fencer was a true story before it began (rather than being in the usually best position of knowing nothing at all about a film). It would have made its sentimental and seemingly formulaic story feel much less on the nose. As it turns out, this wasn’t a case of truth feeling stranger than fiction but rather truth feeling very much like traditionally plotted fiction.
A Finnish / Estonian / German co-production (!) set in Estonia and Russia in the early 1950s, the milieu is definitely the most intriguing element of this rather slow-burning drama. We’re in the small, chilly, put-upon town of Haapsalu, where Endel (a stoic Märt Avandi) shows up at the local school to teach. He’s overqualified but grudgingly accepted; as teaching the art of fencing to a batch of kids of various ages grows on him, so too does his past come nipping at his heels.
The story really does smell of Hollywood formula even though the film couldn’t have been made further from La La Land, but the portrait of dispirited, oppressed life under the Soviets after World War 2 is evocative and poignant, as are the kids. It’s gorgeously shot too, especially the snowy sequences which make up about half the film. Shame I was always two steps ahead, and often, I hate to say, glancing at my watch.