Should’ve been called ‘DRAMA: The movie’.
Fences (2016) is a DRAMA (all caps) directed by Denzel Washington and based on the play of the same name by August Wilson. It follows the struggles of a working-class African-American family in the 1950s headed by Patriarch Troy (Denzel Washington) and wife Rose (Viola Davis).
Fences origin as a stage play is visible throughout the entire production. A handful of settings, pages upon pages of dialogue and seriously dramatic acting do little to excuse the fact that this is adapted from the most dramatic of theatres. Lets get to the performances first as these are not only the focus of the film, but also the backbone its built on. Washington and Davis were both nominated for Oscars for their roles and that isn’t a surprise – this is Acting with a capital A, with these two talented performers throwing all their talent on-screen. My only real criticism is that the theatrical nature is built into their performances too, as both Washington and Davis perform for the back row in an incredibly theatrical and over-the-top way. There is little attention given to make these characters and dialogue feel rooted in reality – its all about the DRAMA. That’s not necessarily a major criticism, as this is still two very powerful performances. But I just can’t shake the feeling it would be more powerful on a stage over a set.
And that brings me to the biggest issue of the film. Fences never seems to put up an argument why this should be a film rather than a play. That’s not to say Denzel Washington’s directing is at fault – its just very straightforward. content to let it play out (pun) rather than embellish it with cinematic qualities. What it boils down to is basically filming a stage play, with little flair beyond that. That stage play however, is exceptional. The dialogue crackles with energy and intensity and is fluidly delivered by an all-around talented cast of three dimensional characters. Its just a little bit inside me can’t shake the feeling that it needs to be something more.
As Best Picture nominees go, Fences deserves it. Its fantastically performed with an incredibly tight script and isn’t afraid to face up to race and social issues. But at the same time, going to the see the stage play is going to give you all that and more. Definitely worth a watch if that isn’t an option for you, but if you’re going to choose between the two mediums I know which one I would prefer.
General Audiences: Recommended
Film Buffs: Recommended