By Jack Dignan
The awards season is a consistently interesting period for any movie buff. Year after year, all the biggest award contenders are released within the period of a few months, usually in Australia between December and February, whereas overseas it’s between October and December. One of the final Best Picture nominees I had yet to see was Fences, Denzel Washington’s latest directorial effort based on the Tony Award winning play of the same name. And like with every year, there’s always one or two films, sometimes more, that I merely consider to be fine, or in some cases even quite average. This year, for me, the ‘fine’ Awards Contender goes to Fences.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences is a story of fatherhood, as told through the perspective of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington). With the film confined to predominantly just one location, his home, we get to know the ins and outs of his day-to-day life. He’s a garbage man, working hard every day with his best friend of many years, Bono (Stephen Henderson), while constantly wishing for a promotion. For eighteen years, Troy has been married to Rose (Viola Davis), who spends her days trying to be the best wife she can be, also looking after their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). They have the makings of what should be a perfect family, but as the film goes on, it’s discovered that this isn’t the case, tension surrounding their every interaction.
Fences is a film grounded by its play roots, more so than necessary for a big screen adaptation. Plays and films are two distinctly different ways of telling a narrative, plays restricted to simply what they could show on stage. They’re more dialogue based, featuring fewer locations and merely driven by these characters and what they have to say. Films, on the other hand, tend to be more visually driven, even those that are compromised mostly of dialogue. Translating the two usually involves a lot of work, not always leading to the greatest results, and such is the case with Fences. I haven’t seen the play, but after watching the film, I felt like I already had.
There’s nothing displayed here that’s able to distinguish the two from one another, the cinematics lost in the process of bringing this award winning play to the big screen. That’s not in reference to the craft itself, as Denzel Washington does do the best he can. The sets made feel real, as if pulled right from this time period, the cinematography capturing it as well as can possibly be. But it’s restricted. There’s very little movement to be found, every scene drawn out and comprised entirely of exposition, thirty minute blocks frequently feeling like one big, long monologues. They’re not, but they come close, something that may have been effective on stage, but not on film.
Characters come and go, almost exactly as they would on stage. They enter from the left and leave to the right, every scene holding on whatever characters are remaining in the location we’re currently in. The effect wears off, my interest levels slowly deteriorating, It needed a shake up, something to make the film just a little bit more visually interesting, as all we really have to go with are the characters, most of whom just stand or sit around. But on the other hand, this does allow for some deep and sophisticated development of who they are. They’re well realised and thorough, their motives and backstories clearly shaping them into the people they are today. Writer August Wilson has a deep understanding of who these people are, bringing out their true selves in every single scene.
The thin plot does make the already long runtime feel even longer, but the thing saving this film from total boredom are the performances. Each of the five main adult actors were all a part of the play’s revival back in 2010, clearly proving that they’re all the right choices for the part. The dialogue is lengthy and rich with emotion, well written but easily could’ve been a drag had it been in the hands of a less talented group of actors. Thankfully, this is not the case, as every single person here gives it their all and goes up and beyond all previous expectations I’d had for them. A lot of buzz has been surrounding these performances, and not one failed to deliver.
Denzel Washington gets the most to do here, serving as the director, producer and lead actor. It’s clear the most effort was put into his acting, but his performance has snatched up a lot of awards, surprisingly earning him the SAG last month, so his efforts are clearly worthwhile. It may be his movie, but it’s Viola Davis who steals the show. While at times this film just feels like it exists to display how brilliant these two are at acting, it doesn’t take away from her performance. She’s powerful and emotional, striking the soul of every viewer. You can feel her pain all the way throughout, one scene in particular leaving me with my jaw well and truly dropped due to the sheer excellence of her delivery.
For a film driven by its family drama, the tension is rarely felt. So many moments throughout are meant to come across as intense, putting you on the edge of your seat, but it could never be felt. The scene from the first trailer, featuring Cory confronting his dad about not liking him, is one of the few moments where I felt anything towards these characters. The seriousness of the situation at hand finally appeared, reappearing once more in the earlier mentioned scene with Viola Davis. Sympathy can be felt towards everyone, but I didn’t necessarily care for many of them, in particular Troy. His beaten past shaped him into the man he is today, and that man isn’t one I enjoyed watching on screen, perhaps adding to the reasons why I found this film is be nothing more than decent.
Fences is the type of film you watch at home on a Sunday afternoon with nothing better to do. It’s not fantastic or life changing, nor is it something that requires a cinema viewing, but for what it is, it can be an entertaining, stay at home film to pass the time and display some brilliant pieces of acting.
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