A mighty showcase of truly excellent performances.
The past of plays being adapted into films is a rocky one. Not often are they bad, but they don’t strike the balance of retaining the spirit of the stage with the needs of film. Adapted from August Wilson’s Pulitzer-award winning masterpiece, Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, opts primarily for the spirit, paying off massively in a film that digs deep.
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a fiftysomething bin man, leads a quietly routined life, alongside his wife of 18 years Rose (Viola Davis). The increasing despair and resentment he holds for his past hardship begins to tear away at everything however, including his relationship with his son Corey (Jovan Adepo).
The long opening sequence is firmly held by Washington, as he works alongside pal Bono (Stephen Henderson), before strolling home to drunkingly chew the fat. The direction is stellar throughout, but the real focus of every moment in Fences is the rich dialogue, flowing beautifully to the audience through Washington in what could be his most effortlessly natural performance to date. For much of the first hour Troy demands your attention with ponderous and profound speeches, the knockout blow coming when Corey enters the picture. His, now famous admittedly, speech to his son about how there is no law saying he has to like him – likely to fuel you with a painful rage – hits hard, and from here Washington’s character becomes more apparent as a villain, or perhaps more eloquently, a fool.
Washington’s anguish isn’t exactly unjustified – institutionalised racism forced him out of a career in pro-baseball (although other events perhaps had a part to play in that). But his family’s pain, particularly his son’s is firmer in its fairness. Adepo’s performance lets the inner conflict shine through, battling with respect for his father and contempt all the same. But when Viola Davis’ culmination of taking shit finally rises to the surface, oh my.
“Well I’ve been standing with you!” Rose delivers, tears streaming down her face, trembling with both fury and love for her twisted husband. It’s a moment of undebatable passion, a glorious release paying you back for sticking with it. Davis is pretty much guaranteed an Oscar come Sunday’s ceremony, more than deserved for a career best performance. Her chemistry with Washington, stemming from their Tony-award winning time together on stage for the play, never slacks, even in times where it seems they are completely broken, it’s both gentle and convincing.
Cast members from the play, Russell Hornsby who plays Troy’s other son Lyons, and brother Gabriel played by Mykelti Williamson, are welcome additions. Hornsby is an undeniably likeable character, delivered with charm and warmth. Williamson’s character may not pack the punch intended, but in an ensemble of this level, it’s a small bump.
As Washington locks us within the Pittsburgh home guarded by the ever-progressing fence, it’s a film that requires endurance. You must take in every glance, every grunt, every word; because you can’t do anything else. Like you would have in the play, an intermission may have eased the whole experience, not because it’s unenjoyable obviously, but at just over two hours it’s a lot for the mind and heart to fully comprehend.
To sum it up…
Washington’s heart-achingly grounded tale of taking the crookeds with the straights is a home run. While it may not be one you can watch on repeat, it’s a faithful adaptation driven by powerhouse performances.
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Author: Cameron Frew