A real acting powerhouse of a film, Fences at times betrays its origins as a play, but that’s about the only criticism I can make of an intense, dramatic experience.
In 1950s Philadelphia, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) lives with wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo), and works as a binman with old friend ‘Bono’ (Stephen Henderson). The film takes us through a stage of the family’s life in which Troy’s controlling and braggart nature starts to expose cracks and divisions between all three, and Troy’s other son Lyons (Russell Hornsby).
Based on a play by African-American playwright August Wilson (who wrote the screenplay last decade before he died), Washington also directs, and the initial stages (perhaps the first 20 to 30 minutes) were about the only thing I found fault with. Its basis as a play is too obvious during this period, with monologues, too much conversation and not enough movement, and I did think I might struggle to adjust. Starting in the garden of the Maxson’s home (where much of the film takes place), everything finally seems to shift after this section, taking us around the home and making it feel more dynamic. The staging in a real, period house only adds to the intimacy and sense of place, and married to the excellent and committed acting, you buy into the whole package.
Monologues are so well-staged and filmed by Washington that you forget about the shaky start, and become engrossed. The lighting by Charlotte Bruus Christensen is also more organic and realistic (being as a lot of the film takes place outside), and again only adds to that feeling of reality. This also works perfectly together with the all-too-human story of fathers versus sons, and men ageing while confronting failure and inadequacy. Washington’s clear reverence for the material, along with his great casting and direction, shines through, and I look forward to any future dramas he might direct – what a debut. And it must be said that Wilson’s ground-level examination of the family during this time in their lives (and in America’s existence as well) excellently gives us an insight into the time, the environment and the struggles for the Maxsons as a family.
The lead acting is top-notch, with Washington and Davis far and away the best. Despite not knowing until afterwards that they had played the same characters on stage, that makes perfect sense with how well the two inhabit their roles. Washington was robbed of the Best Actor Oscar in my view, because his performance as the fairly irredeemable Troy is complex, gripping and aggravating. He breathlessly and effortlessly spins stories out of nowhere, a near motor-mouth, but as the film develops so does our perception of him, with a later revelation timed to make you truly dislike the man just as his bluster runs out and he becomes more contemplative. It’s very hard to grab your attention quite like Washington does, and his nuanced portrayal of a difficult man deserved more praise.
Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and quite honestly should have been in with a shout for Best Actress (look at the poster – surely that merits a lead role rather than a supporting one). Her slowly-developing performance explodes halfway through with a great, great scene between her and Washington that I can only imagine was spectacular on stage, and she paints Rose as a woman who loves but also tolerates her irascible husband. She also toes the line between wanting to leave it all behind with her son, and sticking around to make it work – she makes a character with hard-to-understand motivations function, just like Washington does.
Of the rest of the cast, Adepo adds some youthful rage as Cory, the actor playing the stereotypical son butting heads with the father, as Troy’s previous experiences in life and his frankly odious personality come to bear spectacularly on the kid. Russell Hornsby offers a different twist on the same character as the older, more jaded Lyons, put down and treated just as poorly by Troy, with the actor hinting every so often at a submerged fury. Mykelti Williamson does very well in a difficult role as Troy’s mentally-damaged brother Gabe, which would have been tough for most actors so as not to appear offensive, but Williamson (and the character’s cause of injury) make sure that Gabe is sensitively handled (he becomes the lighter and more sympathetic side of things when everything gets more difficult).
Finally, Henderson provides a sympathetic performance as Troy’s old friend and colleague, acting as a quieter, more grounded foil to Washington’s gregariousness and later on showing Bono’s sterner, more moral side – bringing Troy’s actions into even more contrast. Technically, the music by Marcelo Zarvos is slight, and only comes in when needed, but it works to remind you that you’re watching a movie when it does appear, and fits in well with the ambient noise and voices (not to mention silence). Additionally, the editing by Hughes Winborne is worth mentioning too, because his work makes the impact of the speeches and scenes that much more affecting. On stage, your perspective is of the whole scene, from your seat. In a film, the editor chooses what you see, and so the more powerful and involving scenes become more so because we’re drawn to character’s faces, or shown reactions to someone offscreen, which only reinforces the tension and impact.
I will freely admit that this is not a film for everyone – a few people even left during the movie as they’d clearly expected something else! However, in my opinion it’s a strong and quite powerful film anchored by two excellent lead performances, and if you’re interested I would definitely recommend it.