FENCES (USA/12A/139mins)
Directed by Denzel Washington. Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby
THE PLOT: In 1950s Pittsburgh, as he struggles to find the time and motivation to build a fence in his back yard, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) talks over the events of his life with his friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) and wife Rose (Viola Davis), while holding his family together and trying to get a promotion in his job as a garbage man. When a secret must be told, however, Troy soon finds his carefully constructed life coming down around his ears.
THE VERDICT: Based on August Wilson’s play and directed by Denzel Washington – who played Troy Maxson over 100 times on stage – ‘Fences’ is a film that often feels like a play, but is populated with strong performances and laden with dialogue.
Denzel Washington is on fine form as Troy Maxson, and displays the characters strengths and weaknesses easily, and often within seconds of one another. Washington is not afraid to allow his character to be talkative, fanciful and ugly, and does well with the role. Viola Davis is the real stand out as Rose Maxson; often tolerant of her husband’s flights of fancy, it seems as though Rose is content with her life until secrets come to light. It is then that Davis shines; making Rose a strong, heartbroken and confident character, who the audience has no choice but to feel for. Stephen Henderson obviously has fun with the good natured Jim Bono and, as a stage veteran of August Wilson’s plays, brings the character to life with ease. The rest of the cast features Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and Saniyya Sidney.
August Wilson adapted much of the screenplay from his stage play before his death in 2005, and as to be expected from a film based on a play, the stage roots of ‘Fences’ are evident; there is oceans of dialogue throughout the film, the settings take place in and around the Maxson home and there is much talk of characters that never appear on screen. Fences would have benefitted from being written with the vision of being a film, however, as there are times when it seems as though too little is happening, and even though the conversations in the first act of the film are wonderful and give insight into the characters, it drags down the pacing and tension of the film as a whole.
As director Denzel Washington keeps the rhythm of the first act flowing as best he can, although there are times when the dialogue threatens to overwhelm the story being told. The performances in the film are strong and utterly engrossing, and Washington has succeeded in making the right characters relatable, and the right ones hateful, although tougher decisions about pacing would have benefitted the film as a whole. Perhaps Washington himself was too close to the material to make these choices.
In all, ‘Fences’ is a film anchored by powerful performances, and tells a fairly routine if horrible family story with grace and dignity. Viola Davis shines as Rose Maxson, and ‘Fences’ is definitely a film to watch, but could have benefitted from stronger pacing and a shorter running time.
RATING: 4/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    August Wilson’s play Fences was first performed on Broadway in 1987. A film adaptation was discussed, but Wilson insisted that the director be black. The burgeoning talent of Spike Lee at that time would have been an interesting take. However, Denzel Washington has finally tackled it and wrestled it onto the big screen.

    Troy (Washington) is a garbageman seemingly content with his lot in life in 1950s Pittsburgh. He has a devoted wife in Rose (Viola Davis), but has fractious relationships with his two sons, the older Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and the younger Cory (Jovan Adepo). Lyons comes scrapping for money to fund his ex-con life, while Cory dreams of leaving home and finding his own way. However, both have to bend their knees and will to that of their stern father. Troy is a man who doesn’t think too much about people liking him. It’s more important that people do right by him, as he tells Cory in a key scene in the film. He has a very particular view on being a parent and raising a family. Responsibility is essential, but Troy is no angel himself. He’s a flawed man who has made mistakes – ones that will tear his family apart over the course of the film…

    Fences is essentially a recreation of the 2010 Broadway revival with much of the original cast intact, including Washington and Davis. Washington is the right man to take on directing duties here as well, with Wilson himself adapting his play to the screen. Although it has to be said that the transition from the play to the screen is an uneasy one. It’s fair to say that this adaptation is essentially a filmed play. Most of it takes place in Troy’s back yard, with only brief interludes inside the house or on the streets. Wilson and Washington are perhaps being as faithful as possible to the original play, but film is a different medium. The stiff staginess of the film soon becomes evident, as well as the elevated theatre-level performances. Plays can be successfully adapted to the screen without drawing attention to their origins – think 12 Angry Men or Amadeus, both of which are quite cinematic. Fences never quite escapes the confinement of its origin.

    That said though, the film adaptation is still reasonably successful. Washington shows an ear for compelling, propulsive dialogue that asks some important questions about the nature of family, responsibility and how mistakes can come back to haunt a family. There’s also a nice line in characterisation, with some memorable supporting actors filling out the rest of Troy’s life. Washington is an acting powerhouse here and could well win the Best Actor Oscar soon. Davis, who has has already won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for her performance, is heart-breaking as the woman who set aside her dreams to instead invest everything she had in Troy. Washington’s direction is firm and direct, getting in close among the actors and their faces, hinting at hidden torments inside. The closing shot is a touch of the otherworldly in a film that otherwise revels in its realism. While it’s a worthy production, Fences needed to be a bit more than a filmed play. It’s good, but not quite the film this reviewer had hoped for. ***

  • dainiux79

    There is a powerful drama here about the legacy of racism.Denzel Washington is a class act, and he has given us a classy piece of work.

  • Clive Bower

    Brilliantly acted, directed and shot. The second half of the film flys along while the first half can at times for me be hard going. Based as we know on a play it transfers to the big screen with ease. Not one of my favourite films of the year but a great quality one all the same.