Next up on my whistle stop tour of Oscar nominated pictures is Fences, a big screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1983 play. Both starring and directed by Denzel Washington, the film is coming in to the Academy Awards ceremony with four nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, so naturally, my expectations were accordingly high.
Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a middle aged sanitation worker, once a promising young black baseball player, whose life has become somewhat stagnant, something for which he holds a lot of internal resentment and something that manifests in the stern treatment of his family. Wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo) both feel the effects of Troy’s personality in different ways, with Cory’s seemingly hopeful future in American football bringing up memories of his own failed sporting past and causing much tension within the family. Those familiar with theatre will instantly recognise more than a hint of Arthur Miller in Wilson’s work, with the themes of family, regrets, secrets and tragedy taking centre stage. Those familiar with theatre will also know that it is notoriously difficult to effectively transfer a stage story to the big screen, and in many ways this is a problem that plagues Fences throughout.
Within the first ten minutes of the picture it becomes very clear that there is a distinct lack of the ‘cinematic’ about proceedings. Dialogue heavy, a single central setting, less than a handful of characters, all tropes which make for a great theatre experience but a less great film experience. Though the actual narrative tale is one filled with drama, twists and turns, director Denzel Washington takes very few risks with either the source material or the technical craft, and what the audience get feels extremely ‘stagey’ to the eye, with a distinct lack of real world building present. Some of the messages, metaphors and allegories within the story that make for a such a nuanced theatre experience come across as slightly clunky on the big screen, where much more subtlety is generally needed to make an authentic impact. Lovers of great melodrama and tense familial and race relation themes will absolutely find a lot to love about Fences, but as somebody who loves both the theatre and film for different and varied reasons, I couldn’t help but feel that I would rather be watching these fantastic performances play out on the intimacy of a stage instead of a cinematic universe, where the tensions, at times, began to dissipate amidst the sheer size of the medium. This issue alone does not always mean the worst for a film, as is evidenced by my total enjoyment of 2013’s August: Osage County, but, for one reason or another, there was just something about Fences that failed to bring me through the staged nature and out to the other side of complete praise and acclaim.
Though the film fails, for me, at least, to make the most of its cinematic opportunities, what is absolutely undeniable is the fact that is it filled with some powerhouse acting performances. Something of a passion project for Denzel Washington who assumes roles on both sides of the camera, his directing may have been ‘safe’ but his acting is filled with passion and experience. As Troy Maxson, Washington plays a man who is charismatic yet not particularly likeable, and an actor without the insane talent that he possesses would have lost the audience much earlier in the piece through the problematic actions of his character. As son Cory, Jovan Adepo does a great job of portraying a young man who is slowly coming to terms with the fact that his father is preventing him from pursuing his best life, and the scenes that they share are filled with bristling tension that boils over in to some of the best dramatic scenes in the film. My biggest plaudits, however, as everyone else’s biggest plaudits have also seemed to, go to Viola Davis as wife Rose. No stranger to universal acclaim, Davis gives a masterclass in stoic, yet powerful, yet utterly vulnerable, and the audience agonises along with Rose as her life is sent in unwanted directions by the decisions and actions of her husband. Watching Viola Davis and Denzel Washington on screen together, delving in to such rich dialogue, feels like a complete privilege, and the strong performances in their respective roles forgive a lot of the technical deficiencies that the film as a whole might have.
Overall, Fences appears to be another of those occasions where my personal view of the film does not quite match the acclaim of wider public opinion. Whilst the performances from the picture’s big stars are undeniably excellent, there is also no denying that the filmmakers have not managed to transfer the story from stage to screen in a truly great way. It certainly won’t be winning Best Picture, but don’t be surprised if Viola Davis walks away with another statuette to add to her collection this awards season.