Denzel Washington directs this adaptation of August Wilson’s stage play and also stars as Troy Maxon, a Pittsburgh refuse collector who lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy’s refusal to let Cory play college football, due to Troy’s bitterness about himself not being allowed to play major league baseball on account of his race (though it may just have been because he was too old), coupled with a certain infidelity, causes a major rift in the family that threatens to tear them all apart.
While Fences has a strong ensemble cast, it can be no surprise that Denzel Washington and Viola Davis take centre stage and effortlessly dominate proceedings.
First of all, Washington delivers a powerhouse performance as he completely embodies the role of Troy; the first time we see him, he displays that classic Washington charisma, getting us to hang onto his every word as he spins a yarn about wrestling with death, him and Davis playing off each other excellently. Later on, his character shows his dark side and, while Washington allows a certain amount of sympathy for him, he slowly becomes more of an oppressive figure as his pride and bitterness causes a rift between him and his son, Troy slowly turning into his own abusive, alcoholic father. Troy is an interesting, conflicted character as he has trouble adjusting to changing times and is neither hero nor villain, just a flawed, fallable human being.
And then there’s Viola Davis who, as you just might have heard, is wonderful as well; like Washington, she truly becomes Rose and is pitch perfect. While a certain amount of early scenes see her playing second fiddle to Washington, reacting to his behaviour excellently, she soon proves to be his equal and delivers a moving performance of a woman who has sacrificed her life piece by piece, living in Troy’s shadow. Hers is a performance full of heart and soul and Davis doesn’t put a foot wrong, leading me to wonder why she wasn’t nominated for leading actress as opposed to supporting.
The film is visually appealing as it has a rather nice colour pallette and the Pittsburgh cityscape is shot beautifully, as is the final shot of sun beaming through the clouds, which is truly breathtaking. Fences is well designed and we are able to clearly see that it is set in a rundown area, with noticeable overgrown plants and bric a brac regularly seen in alleyways. There is an intimate feel about Fences and there is a certain level of comfort in casually witnessing the everyday goings on of this family.
Music is used sparingly and only in specific scenes where it is necessary and Marcelo Zarvos’ score is a fitting accompaniment to the onscreen drama.
And I suppose we have to address the issue of whether it actually works as a film or whether it is simply too much of a stage play. I will admit that the theatrical quality of Fences is impossible to ignore; within the opening minutes, the principal “set” is introduced and the characters move around as if they were on stage, complete with page-long monologues and props. Ultimately, I think that Fences has its true home on the stage and that it isn’t quite cinema worthy, though it is still an admirable piece of work and the cast and crew’s passion for the works of August Wilson, bringing it to the attention of the general public, is laudable.
There are no overwhelming flaws in the film but I will say that due to the generous runtime and lengthy monologues, I drifted off a few times, realising that there are a couple of moments where the film outstays its welcome.