Denzel Washington stars in front of and behind the camera in this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play. As director, he handles the tricky proposition of adapting a stage play with skill and restraint. This is a character drama, confined to only a few locations, and Washington stays very true to the text, eschewing any need to expand the scope of the story.
As an actor however, his portrayal of Troy is anything but restrained. It is the type of performance for which the clichéd phrases “tour-de-force” and “powerhouse” were invented. Reprising the role he played on Broadway to award winning success, Washington delivers one of his most magnetic screen performances to date.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences tells the story of Troy, his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their family. Troy is a garbage collector, who sees himself as a working class hero. He could have been a brilliant baseball player, but as he tells it, the colour of his skin prevented him making it to the top. Now he does what he does to provide for his family. But the anger and bitter dissatisfaction with his life undercuts everything he says and does, impacting his marriage to Rose, and his relationships with his sons Lyons (from a previous relationship) and Cory.
Cory (Jovan Adepo) is a promising football player, but his father does not support him, instead choosing to actively put an end to his son’s athletic career. He comes in the guise of a wise mentor, not wanting Cory to endure the pain and disappointment he felt, knowing all too well that the colour of Cory’s skin will ultimately doom him to failure in White America. But it’s the jealousy that his son might not fail that really drives him. Make no mistake, Troy is no traditional leading man. For all his charm and way with words, he constantly challenges our sympathies. He is just a man, flaws and all.
But this is only the first half of the film – a first half which undoubtedly belongs to Washington and his spectacular monologues. But something happens which drastically alters the dynamics not only of this family, but of the film we are watching, and Viola Davis’s Rose comes to the fore. It takes one hell of an actor to share the screen with Denzel when he is on this sort of form, and she not only matches him, but ends up stealing the film from under his nose.
She is devastatingly brilliant. As Troy’s selfish, self-aggrandising boorishness threatens to tear their lives apart, Rose’s mask of tolerance begins to slip, and she quietly (and then very loudly) takes control of both the film, and her relationship to Troy. To have seen these two when they performed this play on Broadway…sigh. It must have been incredible.
Despite the sensational performances, it is by no means a perfect film. The confined staginess of the setting is an easy target to critique, but in fact is less problematic than the script, which is overly faithful to the incredibly dense source material. It’s very demanding for the viewer, slow and talky, and with that unmistakably theatrical poetic lilt to the dialogue. This can make certain stretches of this already long film feel like quite a slog. But it is worth sticking with. Bolstered by two outstanding performances, Fences is an insightful, heart-breaking, and devastatingly honest portrayal of unfulfilled lives, regret, and the lie that is the American dream.