The moment the slightest hint of awards season was in the air, all film experts lined up to make a grand declaration – Fences was a film that was going to earn Viola Davis an acting Oscar, without a shadow of a doubt.The film, an adaptation of the eponymous Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson, has reunited Davis with Denzel Washington – the duo had previously starred in a revival of the play in 2010, to strong reviews and each claiming an acting Tony. Their performances are on-point in this film – it is perhaps a bit too stagy to work as it did in the theatre, but as a showcase for strong acting, there isn’t much room for improvement.
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) makes his living as a sanitation worker alongside his best friend in 1950s Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife Rose (Davis) and his son. Maxson once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, was he was deemed too old by the time the major leagues started to admit black athletes. Bitter over his missed opportunity and eager to espouse his belief in responsibility, Troy creates further tension in his home life when he squashes his son’s (Jovan Adepo) chance to meet a college football recruiter. Further events rock Troy and Rose, shaping their family and their lives in ways they never imagined. And Troy always has one eye elsewhere – since his boast that he bested the Grim Reaper as a young man, his old sparring partner is eager for a rematch.
As I have said, the real strength of Fences lies in the two performances at the heart of it, and it is worth watching if just for Davis and Washington. Washington’s Troy is a wordy character, and he keeps the pace throughout the film – his is a compelling presence, simmering with darkness that is undercut by an easy charm. At points, he’ll have you rooting for him and against him, and Washington’s portrayal makes both calls equally plausible.
If Davis were to claim the Oscar this time round, it would not be undeserved. She starts the film almost as a barometer for how much we can put up with Troy, easing off some of his rough edges. When the gloves come off and Troy’s betrayals are revealed, she unleashes a powerful kind of grief-stricken anger – for some people, it will be too much to watch. Some of the play’s cast join Davis and Washington, including Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s mentally disabled brother Gabriel. This is by far the most stagiest of the roles, and it could have failed to translate to screen – instead, it is another strong performance amongst many.
The problems with this film are the hangovers from the stage – that’s not to say that they did not work on the stage and to grand effect (the play’s reception proves otherwise), but film and the theatre are two different worlds and, in staying too close to the original text, it ensures that the film has a stagy feel to it. Scenes are blocked much as they would be in the theatre and, in a medium where the word is almost all actors have to work with, keeping the text the same and then tossing in reaction shots adds very little, and feels a bit like trying too hard.
Washington does not do anything special as a director, and his keeping the camera with the characters works very well – however, in being too faithful to the source material, the film comes across a bit episodic. There are noticeable moments where one scene segues to another, in much the same way as it would be on stage. Fences is almost paradoxical – it’s not grand enough for its transition to screen, yet the story it wants to tell is too large to fit.
Fences is a compelling watch, and it boasts two of the strongest performances I’ve seen for quite some time. It suffers a bit where it has struggled to make the transition from stage to screen, but not to any really off-putting degree, and the meatiness of the film means any viewer who appreciates something substantial will find it good viewing.
Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson), Viola Davis (Rose Maxson), Stephen Henderson (Jim Bono), Jovan Adepo (Cory), Russell Hornsby (Leon), Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel)
Running Time: 139 Mins