Denzel Washington is a talented man, there’s no denying, but with his latest directorial effort – his fourth in total – he has set himself an extraordinary challenge. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play from August Wilson, Fences sees the actor-director having to deal with the difficult task of turning something that was made for the theatre into something that can work for the cinema. The results are mixed, and whilst the film has a lot going for it in ways of writing and acting, it doesn’t always work for the big screen.
Due to the limitations of its original production, the character-driven plot is fairly simple. Washinton plays Troy Maxson, an African-American man who is doing his best to deal with the pressures of a working-class life. He’s a man who clearly has regrets, a man who feels he has suffered racial injustices, and a man whose main purpose in life seems to be supporting his wife, his handicapped brother, and his sons.
With such a concept, the majority of the drama takes place around the back porch and garden of Maxson’s home, where he aims to build a fence with his son. One of the big questions that the film asks is whether this fence is to keep people out, or to keep people in; a question which is heavily explored in the film’s final half, as secrets about Troy begin to emerge which puts his marriage in jeopardy.
Other questions that the film asks is whether history is always destined to repeat itself, and how our pasts will ultimately shape the future of ourselves and those around us. These are certainly all questions and themes worthy of a film, and every character within Fences proves te be every bit as compelling, complex and three-dimensional as you could want from a drama.
The writing is incredibly engaging, but the film still ends up suffering from Washington’s lack of creative direction. The production is unapologetically staged, as if the director has simply walked into the theatre on the night of a performance and began shooting. This is fine up to a point, but considering the story deals with such hefty themes of regret, love, death, family and God, one can’t feel like Washington has missed a oppurtunity to create something that is as visually absorbing as it is emotionally.
As well as lacking any kind of visual stamp, at nearly two and a half hours long, the film feels like it could have at least twenty miutes of its time cut to make for a leaner, sharper piece of work.
It’s in the performances then that Fences finds its main saving grace. Nobody delivers a speech quite like Denzel Washington, and here he gets plenty of oppurtunities to charm and to growl his way through some brilliantly written dialouge. Viola Davis is his secret weapon though, and the recent BAFTA award-winning actress proves worthy of the award. Initially, it’s a quiet performance, but halfway through she completely steals the show from Washington with a very real, very tender portrayal of wife and a mother dealing with her husband’s regrets. If she picks up another award at this year’s Oscars, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
Fences quite clearly makes for a great bit of theatre, but doesn’t quite work here. The performances and August Wilson’s writing is enough to recommend it, but it’s just a shame that its cinematic potential is somewhat squandered. Regardless, it is a totally captivating character study that is well worth your time.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com