Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson
Director: Denzel Washington
Running Time: 133 mins
Synopsis: Pittsburgh sanitation worker Troy (Washington) once dreamed of Major League baseball stardom, but his age counted against him. Trying to be a good husband and father, he finds his failure to attain glory eating at him, and makes a decision that will break his family apart, notably his loyal wife Rose (Davis).
All too often when popular stage plays are adapted for the silver screen you have to ask yourself why! Some are ideal for the large scale vistas and epic soundscapes that only cinema can provide, a Les Miserables or Into the Woods maybe. But one such as Fences, rife with pages and pages of dense dialogue and little in the way of varied locations, doesn’t lend itself to a film transfer as easily. Not to be deterred Denzel Washington ably directs and stars in this adaptation, helped along no doubt by his intense familiarity with the material. Washington played the same role on Broadway for many years, scoring an Emmy for his work, as did his film co-star Viola Davis, as well as a few of the background players too. It is a smart choice, for with material like this it is best to cast people who understand the rhythm of its cadence and can act with a capital A!
Eschewing any big screen tics or even any big location changes, barring the opening shot across a 30s Pittsburgh suburb, Denzel is determined to not let anything get in the way of his actors and especially August Wilson’s acerbic words. Similar to the opening act of any dialogue heavy play, it can be a tough thing to watch to begin with. Your ear strenuously adjusting to that very specific theatrical speak, one that is heightened and not particularly realistic. Furthermore Fences is extremely dense in its dialogue making the speed in which Denzel, Viola et al spit the words out tough for the brain to catch up. Fortunately after a scene setting 20mins or so things settle down.
Troy is a beastly tower of a man. Forceful, stubborn and selfish, he is weighed down from the fact that he was passed over for Major League baseball despite his innate skill due to his age. Although he does not see it that way, for him it was a matter of colour and it is something that angers him to the point that he callously ruins his youngest son’s chance to follow in his footsteps. Complicating all this is the intense guilt he feels over his elder brother being left mentally disabled during a WW1 battle, and Troy using his brothers compensation to buy a house. Although it adds to the inevitable pain of Troys outbursts this is a subplot that could have easily been trimmed, especially when the performance given by Mykelti Williamson is Forest Gump large. All cloying sentimental tics with nary an ounce of subtlety, he finds a few quiet grace notes but it is one step away from what Robert Downey Jr would call “full retard!”
Battling his youngest sons need to rebel (Jovan Adepo is a firecracker of barely suppressed rage) and his eldest’s desire to make a living playing jazz (Russell Hornsby gives a steady restrained performance in a film with little of that), Troy then drops an almighty bombshell on his loyal caring wife Rose. Viola Davis is impeccable here, delivering something akin to a Force 10 storm. Throughout the early portion of the film she is more playful but with an added hint of sadness. Rose does truly love her husband but sees the pain in him and how it pulls him down, attempting to steady him with strong but tempered words. After said revelation, however, she is let off the leash in a heartbreakingly despairing monologue that is filled with so much snot and tears you half expect her to drown.
As the consequences of Troy’s actions take affect the film enters a more contemplative mood, rising in brief ferocious bursts as numerous people collide with Troy. Rose on the other hand remains indignant and stoic, early moments of vulnerability giving way to a powerful stand of defiance. Although by this point you may well be acted out. Washington has made the ideal choice in letting August Wilson’s carefully calibrated verbosity take the lead, but some judicious editing wouldn’t have gone amiss. He attempts to spin in some cinematic flights of fantasy, particularly in the closing scenes but it is too little too late. It is hard to deny the sheer entrancement of watching two powerhouse performers going at it, but after the third or fourth time you begin to feel a sense of exhaustion. On the stage the feel of live actors and their verbal dexterity is tangible and exhilarating but you cannot just take those moments and plonk them in front of a camera and expect the same effect. Cinema is a different beast entirely, one that needs the culmination of sound, visuals and editing to conjure up the same sense of immersion. Fences may be one of the best acted films of the last few months but sometimes you need just a bit more than actors ACTING!
Verdict: Fences never justifies the move from stage to screen with an adaptation full of fire, pain and emotion but too little in the way of cinematic reach. Davis and Washington give tour de force performances but the sheer volume of acting can be overwhelming.