UK Release Date: 10th February 2017
Runtime: 139 minutes
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: August Wilson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby
Synopsis: A washed-up man is forced to confront his shortcomings when his son begins to rebel against him and a dark secret threatens to destabilise the fragile equilibrium of family that he has created for himself.
Along with historical dramas and syrup-drenched biopics, adaptations of stage plays are a fixture of awards season. This year’s example of the genre is an adaptation of the August Wilson play Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington. This is material very familiar to Washington, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the lead role when he starred in a Broadway production of the story in 2010. With that in mind, it was a no-brainer for Washington to be at the centre of the story’s journey to the big screen. It’s a huge, sweeping drama with whip-smart dialogue, but one that is never quite able to shed the shackles of the proscenium arch.
Troy (Washington) works all day as a refuse collector with long-time friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) in order to earn enough money to sustain his family, including wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Deep in middle age, he is undergoing something of a crisis as his son begins to grab hold of some of the sporting opportunities that he never had. Meanwhile, a dark secret bubbling under Troy’s facade of familial comfort threatens to make a mess of the modest, but comfortable, family unit Tory has managed to assemble for himself.
The biggest thing that Fences has in its favour is a tremendous pair of central performances. Washington grapples with perhaps more lines of dialogue than any actor on this year’s Oscar ballot and his delivery is fast-paced, charismatic and gregarious. His incarnation of Troy is a character who can fill any room with his intensity, bluster and bravado. His easy-going banter with Stephen Henderson is lyrical and beautiful, perfectly evoking a tranquil working class existence where money is always tight, but also comfortable. Financial hardship is always an issue, but it can be kept at arm’s length.
Viola Davis, who also won a Tony for her part in the play, is more than a match for Washington as wife Rose. She appears sidelined in the early stages of Fences, but gets to step forward in the later stages in order to deliver her own monologues and trade verbal barbs with Washington. In these scenes, it’s gripping to see two genuine acting heavyweights going at it and their passion is palpable. Fences is an absolute masterclass in acting and there’s no doubt that Wilson’s words are a dream for any actor who wants to bring a bit of relish to a role.
However, this greatest strength is also the thing that makes Fences something of a disappointment on the big screen. It feels as if Washington, incredibly busy with his verbose dialogue, forgot to ever bring the movie out of its stage trappings. Most of the film’s action takes place in a small selection of locations and the visual look of these scenes is always a little samey. Often, Fences can feel more like watching a filmed version of a theatrical production than something visually cinematic and that’s a flaw. There’s a nagging feeling that, if they weren’t going to make substantial visual changes, there wasn’t much point in transposing the story from stage to screen at all.
There are moments of stark, emotional power in Fences and its portrait of the fragility of human happiness is often compelling, but it all feels rather bloated and static. The intimate live atmosphere of the theatre can make this sort of material absolutely fly, which is not something that happens on the big screen. It’s a film rendered in muddy brown backyards and grey streets and, though there’s a vibrancy in the acting that is a wonder to behold, there’s none of that vibrancy in the way the film looks. Fences is a real feat of writing, but as a feature film, it’s less than the sum of its parts.
Pop or Poop?
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are certainly both doing some of the best work of their impressive careers in Fences, but neither of them are enough to lift this stagey film out of the cheap seats and into the multiplex. August Wilson’s eloquent evocation of working class America is a delight but, at well over two hours and with little visual flair, it can be something of a slog in the cinema.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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