Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo
Running time: 139 minutes
As the long-awaited film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer prize winning play, Fences really hits the mark as a work of real narrative power – spearheaded by two towering performances from its leads.
Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, garbage collector Troy Maxson (Washington) struggles with a stagnating marriage to Rose (Davis), as his past shortcomings and regrets also begin to strain his relationship with his talented teenage son (Adepo).
Adaptations from book to screen have historically proved challenging enough; but adaptations from the stage are a whole other breed of difficult; particularly when such source material is so widely and critically acclaimed. But thankfully, Washington – also taking the directorial reigns here – remains loyal to Wilson’s screenplay (written before his death in 2005), giving Fences an innings of real emotional force, with a welcomed absence of cinematic bells and whistles. Such a decision culminates in a film that adopts a very ‘stagey’ feel to it; limiting almost all interaction and revelation to the Maxson family home, where characters come and go as if entering and exiting the stage, and where many of the narrative turns that take place externally are never shown, but revealed to us only through re-telling. As a result, Fences is a film that abstains from any lure of narrative and visual omniscience, and steers clear of any action (in the generic sense) in favour of a work almost exclusively constructed by masterful characterisation and rich, poetic dialogue.
And just like any theatre production, Fences is only as good as its central performers; and when judged by such criteria, the film is a resounding success. In Troy Maxson, Washington expertly carves a conflicting structure of a man who is slowly rotting from the inside out. In the opening exchanges, he is shown to us as a confident, assured and respected alpha-male both as husband and father. Along with long-time sidekick Bono (Henderson), Troy is a back-yard dweller who spends his evenings filling the air with gin-fuelled stories of yesteryear, spliced together with declarations of love for his wife of 18 years. As Wilson’s narrative unfolds with such deft patience, the very same back-yard becomes the point of solitude for a man who seemingly cannot relinquish such attachment to the past; where such charming tales become a guise for bitter feelings of regret, resentment and egotistical selfishness. Troy’s redemptive arc goes full circle, and Washington – worthy of his fifth Best Actor nom – effortlessly dangles enough sympathetic strands in front of us that we never wholly lose him to the depths of villainy.
Davis’ Rose, one the other hand, who begins the film as the crowning achievement of Troy’s auto-biographical anecdotes, soon becomes its driving heartbeat. A figure of equal gut-wrenching devotion and naivety, she – like the decaying baseball that hangs from a frayed rope in the back-yard – gradually begins to take the brunt of Troy’s self-obsessed swings, in a beautifully authentic, powerful – and perhaps Oscar-winning – performance.
In a film about structures, the thematic core of Fences is perhaps a little too neatly formulated at times, whereby the building of the titular construction also brings with it a terrible (if not predictable) irony of familial and social breakdowns, where relationship and racial tensions hang heavy over the piece. Yet, given the current domestic unrest resulting from growing political uncertainty in the US, the over-egged thematic symbolism of Fences might just give the film a most timely and necessary resonance and relevance – although nods to the proposed building of a certain wall might just be scraping that cinematic political commentary barrel a little too hard.
To shamefully misquote for the purposes of a shoehorned intertextual reference, it might have been said that “if you build it, they will come”; and with Fences, Washington, Wilson and Davis have constructed a work worthy of filling just about every seat in the cinema – beautifully pitched and powerfully realised, this might just be Denzel’s most accomplished work to date.