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Fences

Review:

Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s stage play (which in its 2010 Broadway revival featured the same cast, including Washington himself) is set in 1950s Pittsburgh. Washington plays Troy Maxson, an African-American garbage disposal worker who lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and adolescent son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Amongst the visitors to their house are Troy’s work/drinking buddy Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson), his older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) who has left the nest and is trying to make it as a musician, and his brother who is afflicted with brain damage-induced biblical visions having been shot in the head in WWII.

The story follows his relationship with his family as he destroys Cory’s dreams of becoming a baseball player by assigning him various household chores (including building the titular fence) in the light of his own failed dreams of becoming the same. One or two skeletons also drop out of the closet that cast his character in a different, and not altogether positive, light.

The acting in Fences is superb. Denzel Washington gives his usual powerhouse performance as a man who is by turns endearingly extroverted, wracked with bitter aggressiveness and filled with sad-eyed regret. He’s ably matched by Viola Davis as a long-suffering wife trying her best to remain his dignified “other half” and the glue of decency that holds this dysfunctional family together. While these two have taken the Oscar nomination glory, in truth there’s no weak link in this entire cast - unsurprising considering that they will have known these parts like the backs of their hands having previously performed them on Broadway.

The problem is that Fences is so true to the original stage play that it’s largely just a straight transfer of it to the realm of film. The stage and the cinema screen are two entirely different mediums and what’s great in one format doesn’t necessarily work in the other. Theatre is all about dramatic intimacy with the characters and their unfolding interpersonal relationships in front of the audience. Cinema is all about presenting a fabricated world beyond the “fourth wall” of the screen: a world the characters interact with and evolve in response to. To be fair Denzel Washington does try on occasion to make the play a little more cinematic, such as at the start where Troy and Jim chew the fat while hanging on the back of their garbage vehicle as it roves around the neighbourhood streets, or a montage sequence later on in the film. The production design of the glimpses of the world we do see generally feels authentic, with the streets lined with row after row of identical brown houses and period automobiles. Unfortunately most of it is confined to endless reels of conversation in the house and back yard.

There’s some compelling drama that manages to get out in the second half of the film as various revelations occur, but on the whole Fences feels like an endurance test. While Troy isn’t an outright villain he’s a rather reprehensible character - an alcoholic who acts like an authoritarian bully to his sons and generally carries out various actions (or is revealed to have carried out actions) that are morally pretty dubious, even if some of them are ones that he might perceive as having a well-meaning end to them. There are motivations behind his behaviour (such as the limited opportunities blacks had in the USA at the time, and the revelation of the poor treatment he received at the hands of his own father) but these are merely talked about in passing and hence don’t the same impact as his own hopelessly short-sighted onscreen actions do. Having never seen a stage production of the play I can’t necessarily tell whether his character might have worked better in such an environment, but here the overall result is a long and miserable film that only occasionally comes to life.

Runtime: 139 mins

Dir: Denzel Washington

Script: August Wilson

Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson

Rating: ☆☆1/2

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