Review: Fences: “Viola Davis shines”

Fences is a screen adaptation of August Wilson’s renowned play of the same name. Directed by Denzel Washington (The Great Debaters, Antwone Fisher) who previously directed and starred in the play’s revival on Broadway, Fences is undoubtedly a passion project, wholly dedicated to the source material. The film is set in 1950s Pittsburgh and follows Troy (Denzel Washington), his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) through their endeavours.

In terms of themes, it is hard to know where to start. August Wilson’s writing is unwavering in its ability to provide an intricate understanding of a wider picture. The ways in which we come to know Troy and Rose through their interactions with each other is truly a testament to the screenwriting demonstrated here. The story is set over a number of years, closely accompanying Troy through countless actions and reactions. We feel we know him so well that he becomes predictable in his routines. His actions and reactions dictate the ways in which Rose and Cory lead their lives, never questioning the extent of Troy’s power.

Fences ultimately proves successful in depicting the family structures which form around men like Troy. In that sense, Fences is similar to Moonlight in its exploration of what it is to be a man. Moonlight, however, gives its audience time to ponder these elements, whereas Fences pushes on with Troy’s depraved acts, not allowing audiences to understand him until he is gone – much like the ones closest to him.

The clear highlight of this film is its performances. Viola Davis reprises her role as Rose, absolutely shining as the true anchor of Fences. It is often remarked that in order to win an Academy Award, an actor/actress must have a ‘snotty-crying’ scene; Viola has no less than three such scenes. Denzel as Troy is unrelenting; he lives this role and disappears within it. Fences also utilises its stellar supporting cast to magnificent effect.

Unfortunately, Fences’ flaws are found in its translation to the big screen. Denzel’s objective was to maintain a strong devotion to August Wilson’s play. Initially, it was impressive to watch such long, drawn-out scenes with monologues and close-ups (all the close-ups). The settings of Troy’s home and yard felt tangible and fresh. However, after the umpteenth day lit backyard monologue, the repetition began to set in.

Fences is a play which was filmed as a movie. But cinema demands something extra – for the screenplay and actors and direction to all work to promote one another. I kept thinking of Doubt (2008) which too was a play adapted by its writer/director (also featuring Viola Davis). Doubt felt so much more dramatic, its story enhanced by the medium of cinema. Fences felt almost hindered by its medium, especially with Denzel’s obvious reluctance to edit scenes out – pushing an almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime. If Denzel’s true objective was to bring August Wilson’s play to a larger audience through the more accessible medium of cinema, then he has succeeded. The film, however, is not accessible in its length and un-filmy-ness.

Regardless, an interesting aspect of viewing this film was surveying such a captive audience. As the film felt like a play, it almost felt rude to take notes or cough. It was the kind of reception entirely exclusive to live performances – a testament to the performances.

Fences has been receiving varied attention during this Awards Season. Most consistently, Viola and Denzel have been receiving the praise that they deserve in acting categories. It is inevitable that Viola will (finally) win the Oscar for her performance as Rose, for which she has already won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award. There is also some discussion that Denzel could win the Oscar following his SAG Award win. His only real contender is Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) who, although previously led the race, seems to be falling back amid unaddressed sexual harassment allegations (*Sad Affleck*). Otherwise, Fences’ only other nomination was for August Wilson’s adaptation and that award will most likely go to Moonlight (quite deservingly).

To conclude, Fences is worth the ticket price for the screenplay and performances. Just be ready to have a long, quiet sit in the dark watching Viola’s majestically snotty performance.

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Ella Pace

Ella is a film writer and media critic working in Melbourne. She loves all things media, but is most passionate about the discussion of media in relation to broader society. Unsurprisingly, Ella is a film student. She is not afraid of pointing out underlying flaws within media, using feminist analytics when looking at the wider media atmosphere. Ella’s love of film and television is ever-present, shining through everything she writes.

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