unwieldy power and prose, telling the story of a black man living in 1950s America, struggling with the continually changing race relations in the country at the time, all while forced to come to terms with the decisions he’s made in his life while raising his family. Denzel Washington, after acting in the play several years ago to critical acclaim, has now brought it to life on the big screen this year, with most of the same cast members he acted with on Broadway, and unsurprisingly, Fences remains an incredible play in this film adaptation, but that’s also its biggest problem.
Directed by and starring Washington, who’s reprising the role he won a Tony for in 2010, Fences is an admirably faithful adaptation of Wilson’s play, which all too often feels out of place on the big screen because of it. Instead of letting the visual versatility that cinema offers help to expand Wilson’s story, or offer a more immersive version of the source material, Fences unfortunately ends up feeling too constricted by its original format and structure.
Where Broadway plays are constricted to a very small amount of locations, and require the audience to let their imagination fill in the details about some of the places, the characters are allowed to be in more than one room for a majority of their scenes, and if they want to be walking down the street during a monologue, they can. Frustratingly, however, Fences never capitalizes on those opportunities, and it feels slightly stunted because of it, especially when Washington’s Troy begins down yet another seemingly endless monologue, while still sitting in the same chair in his backyard that we’ve seen him deliver five other monologues sitting in already.
But if Washington’s decision to keep his camera stiff and unmoving is one of the reasons that Fences isn’t quite the home run hit he’s swinging for, it’s the performances of the actors in it that help make it a solid line drive down center anyways. Chief among them is Washington, who brings Troy to life with a narcissistic, hard-edged quality that makes him feel like the biggest and most intimidating man in the room, especially for his kids. He uses Wilson’s writing to make Troy out as a man who can’t see past the tip of his own nose, who believes he’s always the hardest working, cheated, and most underappreciated person you’ll likely ever meet, and if you dare claim he’s not the only one to give up their lives for their family, then you’re just better off running away before he retaliates.
While Washington is exceptional as Troy, it’s Viola Davis who steals the show as Troy’s wife, Rose. Unlike the trailers, who seem to hint that she spends the entire film either crying or screaming with rage, it’s the restraint and understated nature of her performance that makes it so memorable. Her character’s slow rise to strength and independence from her husband is one of true growth and beauty, and one that’s powerful because of the little details she brings to Rose. From the heavy sighs she exhales in between her everyday chores, to the small daggers she gives Troy with her eyes once he starts in on another one of his tirades, this is one of the most fully realized performances of 2016, and if there’s any one reason to see Fences, it’s for Davis.
Even despite the all-star performances from everyone involved, Fences can’t help but feel like an irritatingly formal and constricted adaptation of Wilson’s play. Where the acting is just as extraordinary on screen as it is on a theatre stage, there’s aspects and moments in Fences that don’t work as well in a film, and it’s Washington’s apparent reluctance to admit that truth that keeps Fences from being as striking and vibrant of a film as it is a play.
Fences is an admirable, exceptionally well-acted new directorial effort from Denzel Washington. Featuring two, awards-worthy performances from both Washington himself and Viola Davis, it’s the kind of last minute film that should drum up some considerable awards attention for itself, even if it doesn’t receive much praise outside of those two lead performances.