Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their stage roles in Washington’s screen adaptation of the beloved 1950s-set play by August Wilson about a black family in Pittsburgh.
Fences is as faithful, impeccably acted and honestly felt a film adaptation of Wilson’s celebrated play as the late author could have possibly wished for. But whether a pristine representation of all the dramatic beats and emotional surges of a stage production actually makes for a riveting film in and of itself is another matter.
Having both won Tony Awards for the excellent 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson’s 1986 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Washington and Davis know their parts here backwards and forwards, and they, along with the rest of the fine cast, bat a thousand, hitting both the humorous and serious notes. But with this comes a sense that all the conflicts, jokes and meanings are being smacked right on the nose in vivid close-ups, with nothing left to suggestion, implication and interpretation.
All the same, public reaction to the material will likely be strong, resulting in a much-needed commercial hit for Paramount.
One of the most individually successful instalments of Wilson’s celebrated “Pittsburgh Cycle”, Fences alludes not just literally to the barrier that middle-aged Troy (Washington) forever procrastinates about building in the small backyard of his modest city home - but to the career and life obstacles he has never managed to surmount, either as a baseball player, for which he blames racial restrictions, or in his messy personal life.
It’s a play of poetically heightened realism, with amusing chatter, soaring monologues, boisterous drunken riffs and blunt dramatic confrontations in which Troy bitterly and sometimes cruelly draws the lines between him and those closest to him.
These include his wife Rose (Davis), who loves him, knows all his moods and yet must stoically endure his erratic behavior; teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose school football career Troy cruelly thwarts by projecting his own sports disappointments onto him; Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s mild-mannered 30-something son by a previous marriage, a jazz musician who still comes around asking for money; and younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose wartime head injuries have rendered him childlike.
Getting off easy among Troy’s intimates is his old pal Bono (Stephen Henderson)and much of the early going is genially dominated by the pair’s increasing high humour as they end their work week as garbagemen, with Troy taking out his flask and launching into tall life tales.
Rose, having heard it all before, busies herself in the kitchen and alternately resists and succumbs to her husband’s wily way with words. But modest as his station in life may be, it’s of paramount importance to Troy that he be regarded as the cock of his particular walk and a great deal of what he does and says is devoted to emphasising this point.
He may make a meager living, but he uses his slim economic advantage and lordly personality to exert a certain droit du seigneur over his immediate circle. “I’m the boss around here,” he likes to remind the others.
This is particularly hurtful to Cory, whose dreams his father so unreasonably thwarts, but is also demeaning to his wife and older son. Troy withholds from his loved ones almost as if by instinct, winning on points in the short term but losing in the long run, due to what can only be called spiteful meanness.
In his third outing as a big-screen director (after Antwone Fisher in 2002 and The Great Debators in 2007), Washington opens up the play’s action, discreetly moving out onto the street for a ball game, or to a bar, or a location in the city, so as to get the characters out of the house once in a while.
All the same, the film cannot shed constant reminders of its theatrical roots, nor of how different theatrical playwriting is from original screenwriting. Now such transfers are a rarity - the last straight play to win a best picture Academy Award was Driving Miss Daisy, 27 years ago, and perhaps the three most notable non-musical plays made into films in the past few years, August: Osage County, Carnage and Venus in Fur, went nowhere commercially.
However, due to Fences’ star power and its innate qualities, this will not be the case for the film, which offers enough dramatic meat, humour and lived-in performances to hook audiences of all stripes. Still, there seems an abundance of long speeches, high-pitched exchanges and emotional depth charges redolent of the stage.
Fences deals overtly with racial issues almost exclusively, in connection with Troy’s resentment over employment opportunities. Insisting that being black is what prevented him from becoming a big league baseball player, he badmouths black stars who made the grade in the majors. Of more relevance to his current life is his eventual success in breaking down a racial barrier that has long prevented black trash collectors from moving up to become garbage truck drivers.
Production designer David Gropman and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen create an appealing lived-in ambiance. Playwright Tony Kushner receives a prominent co-producer credit for having done the pruning and shaping to bring the three-hour play down to a more screen-friendly length. - Hollywood Reporter