The Watchers

The Watchers

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Review: Fences (UK Cert 12A)

Originally written by August Wilson in 1983, Fences won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tonys (including Best Play) for its initial production. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis appeared in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, both winning Tonys for their performances. The two actors are reunited for this film version, with Washington pulling double duty as director too.

Troy Maxson (Washington) is a former baseball star in Pittsburgh. Whilst an exceptional player in the Negro League, Troy never made it to the Major Leagues (which he ascribes to racism). Now hauling trash for a living, he struggles to provide for his family. Rose (Davis) has asked Troy to put a fence up in the garden and Troy has co-opted youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to help. Cory has the opportunity for a college football scholarship, which puts him on a collision course with his father.

Washington is exceptional in the lead role of Troy. Full of bluster, regret, indignation, the role of Troy is a real challenge and Washington handles it with aplomb. Wilson's dialogue is dense. Really baroque, without being flowery (I can imagine massive blocks of text on a page). Washington handles these with ease. You might not always like Troy as a character- his treatment of Cory has as much to do with jealousy than wanting to protect his child- but it's a truly brilliant performance. 

Frankly, if Viola Davis doesn't win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Rose, then it'll be the biggest Oscar robbery since Brokeback Mountain not winning Best Picture (no, I'm still not over it). She is simply superb in every scene. A woman who is fiercely protective of her kin but no pushover, she is the force that binds the family together as it threatens to tear apart. It's a really meaty role which Davis- exceptional actress that she is- plays to the hilt. When Rose finally gets to call Troy out, Davis channels a fury and a rage that is quite literally breathtaking. The tsunami of emotion erupts and it is just superb.

When you have two towering performances in the leads, everyone else needs to up their game. And they do. Adepo is wonderful as Cory, wanting to step out from under his father's shadow and forge his own way in the world. There's a lovely turn by Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy's friend, co-worker and confidante Jim Bono and by Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Troy's son from a previous relationship. A musician, Lyons- like Cory- wants his father to be proud of him.

Finally, Mykelti Williamson is heartbreaking as Troy's brother Gabe. An ex-soldier, brain-damaged during World War II and now constantly under the threat of being institutionalised for causing public disturbances, Gabe's compensation money provides the roof over Troy's head. Child-like, innocent and unworldly, Gabe is now a soldier for St Peter (Judgement Day is a constant theme). There's also a touching turn by Saniyya Sidney towards the end of the film but to discuss her role would be a massive spoiler.

Wilson completed the screenplay before his death in 2005 and it is (I imagine) a very faithful adaptation of the stage play. But that is the main failing of the film: it feels like watching a live broadcast of a performance rather than a film. Confining the majority of the action to the backyard and the kitchen robs the film of scope, and also the opportunity to see other characters rather than just hear about them. We could have seen Bono's wife Lucille, or sat in on Troy's meeting with the commissioner, maybe seen Miss Pearl and Gabe in her house. It would have made the film more alive in a way.

Sometimes I will recommend a film because of its performances, not necessarily because of the film itself. If you want to see an absolute masterclass of acting, see Fences. There's not a bad performance in the bunch. In fact, this is one of the strongest ensemble casts I've seen in film for a good long while.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


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