Fences (2017) (Review)

August Wilson completed the screenplay of his Pultizer Prize-winning play Fences in 2005 before his death and, after many fruitless attempts, his efforts have finally made its way on to our screens - and straight into the Award season conversation. Earning itself four nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay in a posthumous nod to the playwright himself, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis star in the adaptation and have themselves become front-runners for the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress victories later this month at the Oscars. With Washington taking directorial reigns and enticing most of the original cast members of the 2010 stage production back to reprise their roles, does the film make the page to stage to screen translation well enough to make this a worth entry into the Oscar game and a convincing trip to the cinema?

Set in 1950's Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Washington) lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo), working as a waste collector alongside his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). His seemingly idyllic marriage is enough to tide him over, and despite their low income and modest house, he is happy and, at the request of Rose, begins to build a fence around their home. Having to deal with his estranged son, Lyons (Russel Hornsby) his mentally ill brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) and testing relationship with Cory, perhaps Troy's life isn't as sound as he dreamed it to be. Themes such as racism, dissatisfaction, masculinity and family are considered, making this a multi-layered insight into life for black folk in 1950s Pittsburgh.

It's a brilliant sign that every single eligible cast member (in which age does not play a crucial role in the character's story) has decided to reprise their role from the 2010 stage production - it suggest you have something truly special on your hands. Davis, Washington, Williamson, Hornsby and Henderson return to the fold, a move which works wonders regarding cast dynamics and their individual understanding of these characters and their relationships. Williamson, Hornsby and Henderson are terrific supporting players, effectively underpinning and fleshing out our knowledge of Troy, his background and his struggles, with each enlightening the audience to a different side of Troy's personality. Despite a marked disadvantage, new cast members Jovan Adepo really impresses, positioning himself as an actor to look out for in the future with a passionate turn as Troy's frustrated son, eager to do right by him but increasingly disheartened by his father's refusal to support him. Washington's talent is undeniable but his performance here strikes me as overly-rehearsed: it does not always progress into something natural or believable, perhaps hindered by living with this character for years now. His character is complex and he give it his all but something just doesn't quite sit right with me and that may be down to our continually shifting opinions on the lead. Viola Davis, on the other hand, has no such trouble and steals the entire show; she shines so brightly as the hurt, determined, gracious and committed Rose, a woman empowered to do right by her family. Davis manages to portray both an elegance and chaos, very often in the same breath, in a role that appears tailor-made; it isn't, but by god she makes it so. Her momentous line - "WELL I'VE BEEN STANDING WITH YOU"- as seen in every single trailer for this film has given me goosebumps on each and every occasion and it alone convinces me that the Academy Supporting Actress trophy is already, absolutely deservingly hers. It is a masterful, towering performance and the very definition of acting. The Academy might as well start etching her name on the trophy plate now. It's a career-defining performance in a career that already has enough of those - it's almost unfair.

Timely and timeless in its approach to themes and despite being published over 30 years ago and set another 40 years prior to that, Fences never feels too far from our reality, in both its views to race and class. Its story may not be as important to the history books as many other award contenders (namely, Hacksaw Ridge and Hidden Figures) but it sure is crucial in sharing an important message regarding normal, human lives - and not only that, but the lives of black people, which is so rarely depicted on screen (although we are experiencing a golden age at this moment with the likes of Figures, Moonlight and Loving all circulating award season). Its story is so focused and insightful on this one family and their struggles, achievements and general day to day lives and it never attempts to complicate that; in fact, Fences' characters are built up higher than the story itself and the film truly benefits from that. It finds its rhythm in the second act after the rose-colour tinted opening stretch, with the sequence inside the kitchen (and that which spills out from it) is an absolutely expectational, classic piece of cinema that will be remembered for years to come. It's powerful in its emotion and generally prestigious in its presentation and execution, deserving of its place in the Oscar chatter.

The fear with this film is confirmed though; it unfortunately does not make the stage to screen translation all that effectively. The lengthy, overwhelming passages of speech - while poetically-written - threatens to alienate audiences, particularly during the first act which feels like a direct 'copy and paste' job from play to screenplay. Wilson's lyrical, flowery content is barely changed or edited here, creating the impression that you are watching a filmed version of the play which can be distracting if it is something you struggle to shake off.  It's admirable that Wilson's content is here in its purest form and that the translation is such a faithful adaptation, showing a deserved amount of pride in the story he wishes to tell, but it is striking almost immediately that film isn't the medium best suited to his glorious work. Washington's direction is a double-edged sword: it has no special flourishes and sometimes fails to engage on a visual level and does not always award the film the scope it deserves, feeling limited and restricted by its setting; that said, it's refreshing that he places such an emphasis on the human story and space to showcase the fantastic cast performances. It's a difficult task to perfect but would likely be able to master it if the film didn't wind on for so long. Furthermore, some of the symbolism and metaphors feel a little heavy-handed and too on the nose, most noticeable in the film's final moments - it doesn't work; it feels sanitised and saccharine, a marked contrast to the film's overarching tone and it doesn't quite sit right in the closing seconds of the piece.

Washington has vowed to continue bringing the further nine stories that make up Wilson's Pittsburg Cycle to screen, so it's a good job the first is a real success - and more importantly, its flaws can be very easily rectified. To continue the baseball analogy featured in the film, Fences is not quite a home run but the team end up winning, if not in the most spectacular fashion. The ticket is worth the entry price alone if only to see it as a showcase for Viola Davis powerhouse performance and she has certainly got my backing, for what it is worth, in the Best Supporting Actress race. Fences is a prestigious picture that shines a light on the rarely captured story of humanity, with the black characters they champion in this piece at the very heart of everything they do; it's remarkable that the film can demonstrate a story on such a quiet, intimate yet multi-layered level and remain so purely compelling.


Summary: Fences is a stunningly acted and beautiful written, if perhaps unsuitably dense, telling of a rarely told but profoundly moving and human story. Its complex characters are tremendously brought to life by a committed cast, with Viola Davis shining the brightest in this career-defining performance.

Highlight: The entire kitchen sequence never puts a foot wrong, from the sensational performances and particularly Davis' deliver.