Fences: Film Review
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Joven Adepo
Director: Denzel Washington
Based on the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play by August Wilson from part of the Pittsburgh cycle of plays, Fences rarely transcends its theatrical roots in its transition to screen.
And while this tale of an ordinary family and the ordinary everyday battles with life's choices may overwhelm some unable to disassociate the non-filmic experience, for those who stay in their seats during the 140 minute run time, the reward is a powerful performance from a pair of searing leads.
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a rubbish truck worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. Resigned to the life laid before him after he was rejected from the Negro baseball league, Maxson's determined to make a promotion to driver of the truck becoming the first African-American to do so. Believing he was passed over by the white man because of his colour, Maxson's bitterness is infecting his family.
From his long-suffering wife of 18 years, Rose (played with a quiet ferocity by Viola Davis, who's on award-winning form) to his son Cory, who wants to try out for the football leagues, Troy's righteous anger bubbles deep below the surface.
But as the bullish and mood-swinging Troy continues his quest to cope with the price paid to keep the family together, the simmering resentment and frustration he feels at his situation is corrosive to all around him...
Fences benefits from a powerhouse performance from Davis, and a little less so, with Washington, both reprising their award-winning roles from the stage performance.
While Washington's is clearly the more showy turn, with plenty of exposition and "Remember when?" ethos soaking his at times, didactic dialogue, the quieter more effective Davis as Rose is the more explosive of the two.
Hers is a subtle performance of a tragedy within and her reserved outlook for most of the film means when the inevitable moment comes, its intensity and power is evident. It's a relative shoo-in for her for an Academy Award this year, based on the politics of the film and the subtle energy of her performance.
The allegory of Troy Maxson's family obsession with building a fence within the play isn't lost on the audience, with it being mentioned several times that it's to keep things out and simultaneously things in, but the poignancy of the reasoning behind it doesn't become clear until the end.
However, it's a long way to the end, and with the film's flow very much feeling like a four act play with distinct ends and fades, there's a degree of endurance needed to get through Washington's relative workmanlike direction of Wilson's play. He rarely makes use of any of the spaces around him, with the dialogue demanding that stationary sets and relatively static positioning be used doing little to shake off the more theatrical feeling of Fences.
Consequently, Fences becomes somewhat of a punishing movie, and some of the electricity that would be delivered in the live arena of the theatre is, unfortunately, somewhat lacking. As the story of the ordinary suburban family plays out, one can't help but feel more of an edge would have generated a little more of a frisson for ordinary film-goers.
As it is, the confines of the stage writ large upon the big screen, rob Fences of some of the moments that would land in that live venue and with the electricity of an audience. That said, in the back half of Fences, this performance of actors acting becomes more of a tour de force, mainly thanks to its leads and their lengthy monologues.