In Czechoslovakia circa 1983, a state under the grip of a seemingly all-powerful communist regime, a talented young sprinter risks her career by resisting the “special care” program designed to boost her competition times in the solid, well-acted drama “Fair Play.” In her straightforward but involving third feature, Czech helmer-writer Andrea Sedlackova uses a sports story to explore how totalitarianism exacted a high price from those aspiring to preserve their dignity and principles. The result should see plenty of play on the international fest circuit; its domestic rollout in March garnered some 60,000 viewers.
Despite her dubious family background (a father who emigrated to Germany and a mother with dissident sympathies), 18-year-old Anna (rising Slovak star Judit Bardos, saddled with an unflattering hairstyle) is being groomed for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She is expected to unquestioningly follow the edicts of coaches and trainers at the National Sports Center, even when it comes to taking injections of stromba, a secret substance that turns out to be an anabolic steroid.
Anna’s mother, Irena (Anna Geislerova), was once on the national tennis team, and she secretly hopes that Anna will be able to travel to the West and remain there. She wants her daughter to have the career opportunities and benefits she once enjoyed, before personal choices made in 1968 rendered her employable only as a cleaning lady today.
Even though her teammate Michaela (Eva Josefikova) goes from strength to strength with the help of stromba, Anna hates the way it makes her feel and changes her body. Through her romance with student Tomas (Ondrej Novak), whose father is a scientist, she learns that stromba is not only a banned substance, but also a dangerous one. Meanwhile, Irena’s former love, Marek (Roman Zach), a political dissident, asks her to type up some essays with content considered hostile to the socialist system — a request that puts Irena squarely in the sights of the regime’s secret police. Certain chilling scenes here may put viewers in mind of “Barbara” or “The Lives of Others.”
Helmer Sedlackova, who left her homeland for France just before the Velvet Revolution, excels at capturing the grim, strained atmosphere of the time, where people are forced to lie, collaborate and act against their better judgment and principles in order to keep their jobs or protect their loved ones. The film also benefits from two strong female performances that provide sufficient emotional hooks for audience identification.
While Bardos and Josefikova may not have the physiques of elite athletes, they at least look as if they’ve spent time training. The graceful Geislerova, a top Czech star now smoothly transitioning to more mature roles, is compelling as always, and her performance makes one wish the narrative had included even more of Irena’s story.
Craft package stresses the conformity and bleakness of the era, with color-desaturated lensing and brown-toned production design.