The concept of Fences will not be a new one to many, and indeed the journey undertaken to get this film adaptation of August Wilson’s award-winning play up and running, has been an interesting and slightly tumultuous one. The idea of a big-screen version was touted around as early as 1987, around the play’s first successful Broadway run, and the same year in which it won the prestigious Tony award for Best Play. Comedian and actor Eddie Murphy was being considered for a role in it, but thankfully (some might say!), that version was never green-lit. The play then experienced somewhat of a revival in 2010, starring Washington, Davis and most of the other adult actors who appear in the film, picking up a Tony again, this time for Best Revival of a Play.
With the majority of the film’s stars having already played these characters on the Broadway run, Fences unquestionably has the look and feel of a theatrical play, and it is also that familiarity that the cast members have with the characters that makes it such a thrilling watch. The unwavering respect and unparalleled knowledge they have of their characters, how they think, act, speak, and interact with each other results in a highly naturalistic tone which suits the story perfectly.
In many ways, Fences is both helped and hindered by the fact that its origins were on Broadway. On the one hand, it is a medium which means it is an experience which never relents in its dramatic tension, and its dialogue-driven narrative undoubtedly helps the actors to thrive in their character portrayals. However, on the other hand, it is always fairly evident that this story was intended to be performed on the stage, and a small part of you might wonder if the film adaptation was indeed necessary. That being said, the decision to make a film of it undoubtedly broadens the opportunities for people to engage with this story, and it wouldn’t be a surprised if the play makes somewhat of a resurgence on the stages based on the success of the film, and that can only be a good thing.
When viewing Fences as a film and not a theatrical piece however, it does deserve plaudits for its bold choice to maintain that authenticity and feel of being a play, and it translates better than perhaps you might think. As a director, Washington ensures that it is lacking in all cinematic grandiose and keeping it remarkably grounded. The result is a small, stifling, claustrophobic film, that feels as tightly wound as a coiled spring. The slow but purposeful unravelling of events is utterly thrilling to watch, and there is something immensely satisfying in the way in which the narrative is put together. It feels consistently well-earned in the dramatic stakes, and the revelatory bursts are like lightning bolts, steady but relentless gut-punches that will you a broken and emotional wreck by the time the credits roll.
Denzel Washington is one of the most consistently dependable actors out there, and one who is continually able to elevate a film with his acting ability and commanding screen presence. That command and dominance is particularly prevalent in his portrayal of Troy, and he is absolutely mesmerising to watch. Fences is a film built on the strength of its characters and the performances behind them, and whilst Washington is incredible and totally deserving of the awards nominations and wins he has enjoyed so far, Viola Davis is the star of the show. As matriarchal Rose, Davis delivers an absolute powerhouse of a performance. The gradual breakdown of her spirit, character, and emotions is devastatingly brilliant to watch. She is quite simply astounding, unafraid in her choices, and there is no doubt that it is one of the strongest female acting performances of the year. It was a choice of Davis herself to place herself in the supporting actress categories rather than lead, which is interesting for sure, but it has also placed her in a much better position to win without the competition of Emma Stone and Natalie Portman, and this is absolutely a performance which is worthy of all the awards!
Whilst it is sometimes difficult to get past the fact that you are watching a play but on the big screen, the strength and raw power of the performances in Fences mean this isn’t too much of an issue. It is bold and gutsy in its decisions to let the characters and the dialogue drive the film, but the result is quite stunning. Fences is a stripped back no-holds-barred, emotional rollercoaster that will stay with you for a long time afterwards.