Posted Feb 10 2017

Fences - This Movie Theatrically Rocks

Dir: Denzel Washington

Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Yovan Adepo, Mykelti Williams, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby

Over the years, Denzel has appeared more than once on stage in August Wilson’s acclaimed play. Now he has chosen to make it only his third stab at directing for the big screen. And whilst he acquits himself very well, his film – despite stellar performances – never really outgrows its theatrical origins. Or some of the limitations inherent in Wilson’s original piece.

Set in the confines of a lower working class black household in mid 1950s Pittsburgh, Washington is Troy, a garbage man with a wealth of experience, a former career as a failed baseball player, and a bitterness in his heart. He struggles to raise his family, maintain his marriage, build a fence, and come to terms with the failings of his own life, never hesitating to lash out at those around him when said issues rear their head. As Troy, Washington is – naturally – at the top of his game, as good as he’s ever been – and that’s saying a hell of a lot. The role is a natural fit for him, having defined it on stage, but his performance is anything but theatrical. As ever, Washington proves himself to be one of the smartest screen actors out there, if anything the nuance of his work here improved by the fact that he’s the one calling the shots.

Davis has also played the role on stage (opposite Washington) and while she has the lesser role, she definitely gets her “nomination scene” or two – and goes to town brilliantly.

Full praise to all the cast really, especially Adepo as the younger son, trapped by his father’s desire not to be out done by him (although Mykelti Williams does seem to be back in Bubba Gump territory at times.)

First staged in 1983, Wilson’s text does reveal a few creaks. There are too many baseball and, indeed, fencing metaphors than you might like. And the constant repetition of certain phrases feels far more like a conceit that works on stage more than it does on screen.

But it’s elegantly directed by Washington, who never really seeks to expand it, rather than just ground it a real, period world – and full marks to production designer David Gropman and DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen for aiding and abetting that.

Noms have happened for Washington in lead and Davis in support. But the film itself, as powerful as it is, never moves away from its origins in a fully satisfying cinematic manner.


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