Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson
In 1950s Pittsburgh, African-American sanitation worker Troy Maxson (Washington) struggles to earn an honest living and raise his family the way believes to be the right way. A great baseball player when he was younger, Troy was unfortunately too old when the major leagues began admitting black players, and this and other experiences fuels his bitterness, which leads to an action which threatens to tear his marriage and family apart.
Though the strength of the story should always be the most important thing, stage to screen can be a difficult transition as they are two different mediums, and so to bring a stage play to the big screen, those involved have to surely add something extra that utilises the unique creative variables offered by the cinema (in the same way like adapting a novel for the cinema of course).
Well, Denzel Washington, who acted in Fences on the stage, and produces, co-writes and directs this film version obviously cares deeply about it, but he perhaps should have not had such a high amount of creative control, as this film may well have benefitted from having someone with a little more objectivity in charge of its creative aspects.
There is no denying that Fences is a very powerful drama that takes on some themes that are unique to its setting of time and place, but also universal and relatable now. The most poignant themes are that of an individual’s duty to their family, and this is prevalent in the actions of both of the film’s key protagonists.
The character of Troy Maxsom is certainly very complicated; he is often deeply unlikeable due to some his words and actions, but he does stand true to a certain moral code that he believes in, even if it sometimes seems that he does not truly want to actually abide by it.
The success of Fences is of course all about the performances; and these are top notch and serve to make the film more engaging than perhaps it otherwise deserves to be. Denzel Washington is of course a magnetic screen presence, but he has been typecast recently in mindless blockbusters, so it is nice to see him getting stuck into some proper acting! Denzel delivers a performance of ferocious commitment, delivering each line as his life depended on it, making his passion for the subject material very obvious indeed. Denzel’s committed performance means that though we cannot help but find his character deeply infuriating and highly unlikeable at times, he is also engaging and sympathetic on certain levels.
Viola Davis is also exceptional as Troy’s wife Rose, it is certainly a performance worthy of the awards she has so far received, and though she gets far less screen time than Denzel, her character is a deeply sympathetic one of true integrity.
Unfortunately, Fences cannot escape feeling like a play, with the individual scenes being held together by an overall narrative not that does not flow particularly smoothly. While at 140 minutes the film is simply too long and way too much effort to watch; with more discipline and focus a lot of the dialogue could have been removed and the film be 100 minutes long while still very much keeping all of its key narrative themes. The film’s key scene is of course one that is the focus of the trailers between Troy and Rose, and though it is a highly charged and emotionally gripping scene where both actors are exceptional, there is still a third of the film to go. Though some of what happens is of course very important, it just cannot match the heights of the standout scene, and so the final third does feel like an overlong anti-climax, especially the film’s final scene.
Fences is most certainly a gripping drama, and worth seeing just for the two exceptional central performances, but its lack of discipline and cinematic craft does mean watching it is a lot of unnecessary effort at times.
Denzel’s passion project is undoubtedly made with exactly that; but as much as Fences may feature some incredible acting performances, its lack of cinematic discipline means it is not quite as engaging or powerful as it could have been.