The road to this film adaptation of August Wilson’s award-winning play has been an interesting one, with the concept for a big-screen version being touted around as early as 1987, with Eddie Murphy being considered for a role in it. Mercifully, that version was never green-lit, and within minutes of ‘Fences’ starting, you’ll be thanking all the gods that it is Denzel Washington starring instead of Eddie Murphy.
With the majority of the adult actors having already played these characters in the 2010 Broadway run, ‘Fences’ undoubtedly has the look and feel of a theatrical play, but these are actors who know and respect these characters so well that they could pretty much play them in their sleep. In many ways, ‘Fences’ is both helped and hindered by the fact that it was once a play. On the one hand, this medium means it never relents in its dramatic tension, and its dialogue-driven narrative really helps the characters to thrive. However, on the other hand, it is always evident that this story was intended to be a play, and a small part of you might wonder if it ever needed to be a film.
When analysing ‘Fences’ as a film though, it has to be applauded in its bold choices to maintain that feel of being a play, and it translates better than you might think. As director, Washington ensures that it is lacking in all cinema grandiose, keeping it remarkably grounded in its roots, resulting in a small, stifling, claustrophobic film which is so tightly wound, you’ll only remember to breathe when the credits start to roll.
The slow burn of tension, and the steady release of drama as the film progresses, feels consistently well-earned, and its bursts of revelations are like a bolt of lightning, steady but relentless gut-punches which will leave you a broken, exhausted and emotional wreck by the end. The trailer for ‘Fences’ was amongst the strongest I have seen in a long time, giving enough of a hint about the type of drama it will throw at you, but really giving nothing away about the nature of the story, and despite its closed setting and distinctly “un-cinematic” feel, it is a pretty breathtaking film to watch, more than living up to the strength of the trailer.
Few actors are as consistent as Denzel Washington, who is continually able to elevate a film (no matter the quality of the film itself) with his acting ability. Fortunately though, ‘Fences’ is a film truly worthy of Washington’s talents, and he is absolutely mesmerising to watch in this. For thematic reasons which become evident as the film progresses, it is a film which centres around Washington’s character Troy, and he has some truly stunning big speeches and moments, for which Washington’s delivery and characterisation is perfect. It is a film built on the strength of its performances, and whilst Denzel Washington is incredible, Viola Davis is the star of the show, giving an absolute powerhouse of a performance. She is the matriarchal heart and soul of the film, whose gradual breakdown is utterly heartbreaking to watch. She is quite simply astounding, unafraid of letting her emotions drive her performance, bold in her choices, and she deserves all of the awards heaped upon her.
Whilst there is that overriding sense of the fact you are watching a play on the big-screen, the strength of the performances means this isn’t too much of a hindrance, and if a character-driven, dialogue-reliant film is right up your street, then ‘Fences’ will be the film for you. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis’ performances alone make this worth a watch, but it really is quite stunning – a stripped back, no-holds-barred, emotional rollercoaster that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Directed by: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson