FENCES

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Denzel Washington

Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Jovan Adepo, Saniyya Sidney.

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Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a middle-aged man struggling to get by, and he is bitter and resentful of his past, his failures and missed opportunities. He spent some time in prison, and his baseball career never really took off. He takes much of his frustrations out on his long-suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis, from Doubt, etc) and teenaged son Cory (newcomer Jovan Adepo). When Cory has an opportunity to attend college via a football scholarship, Troy’s resentment goes up another notch and creates tension between the pair. Rose tries to play peacemaker, but even she grows tired of the tensions within the household.

Troy also has a toxic relationship with Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his thirtysomething son by a previous relationship. Lyons is a struggling jazz musician who is regularly calling around to borrow money, a further cause of resentment for Troy. And he is concerned for the well-being of his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a gentle and innocent soul who was left mentally damaged by his experiences of WWII. Bono (Stephen Henderson, who can also be seen in Manchester By The Sea) is Troy’s best friend, neighbour and work colleague who acts as something of a sounding board for Troy’s long tirades against the plight of the working man, the difficulties facing coloured people who just want to get by.

A powerful and emotionally raw drama about missed opportunities and broken dreams, Fences shows the hardships of life for the average worker, and it also explores the struggles facing African Americans in the 1950s. Fences has been adapted from the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play written by August Wilson in 1985, and was part of a cycle of plays he wrote that explored the complexities problems and beauty of life for African Americans.

The play was performed on Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones in the lead role. He won a Tony for his performance. In 2010 Denzel Washington also won a Tony for his performance in a revival of the play on Broadway. And now Washington has stepped behind the camera for only the third time in his long career to direct this film version. Having performed the role for 114 performances, he is obviously very familiar with the material. Wilson wrote the screenplay in 2005 before his death, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner (best known for Angels In America, etc) was brought in to polish up the script.

As a director though, Washington doesn’t really make much attempt to break away from the material’s theatrical roots, and he doesn’t open the play up for the screen. Apart from a couple of scenes it still feels and looks very much like a filmed play and the artifice behind it all is apparent. Most of the drama plays out on two sets – the Maxson’s small front yard and the kitchen of their house – which gives it a claustrophobic feel. The film is very wordy and dialogue driven, and at 140 minutes it seems a little too long. The first act is not as engaging as the second act which is strong and gritty, when all of the resentments, bitterness, secrets and revelations come pouring out in a series of emotional outpourings.

The focus here is very much on the performances, and the material gives the actors meaty roles. Washington and Davis deliver a masterclass, and Fences features some of the best acting you are likely to see on the screen this year. Washington has gravitas, charisma and a strong screen presence, and he is superb as the bombastic and bullying Troy. He delivers one of the best performances of his career. Davis (who also won a Tony for her performance in the 2010 revival) remains in the background for much of the film as the soft spoken and patient Rose, until she gets her moment to shine in a heart wrenching and emotionally devastating scene where she pours out here 18 years of frustrations and disappointments. Adepo has a natural charm and honesty about him that enriches his performance. Henderson is a theatre veteran who played the role on stage and he is a comfortable fit for this genial character.

The film has been shot in a classical style by Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt, The Girl On The Train, etc). The film was shot in the neighbourhood where the play is set, which lends an authenticity to its background, although the film doesn’t give us much of a sense of the area itself.

★★★★

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