If you’re looking for light and frivolous entertainment – this ain’t it. Tackling a broad spectrum of themes including race, responsibility, love, betrayal, sacrifice and pride, Fences is mighty heavy viewing, but the outstanding craftsmanship from all involved makes the long slug worth it.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
On the surface, Fences may seem like a simple film; set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, it follows the everyday trials and tribulations of an African American working class family. But rather than casting a wide net over the era, Fences instead chooses to drill down on its subject matter by placing its characters under a microscope. The result? A highly complex film that will leave you emotionally exhausted.
Predominantly contained to a single setting and driven almost entirely by dialogue, it’s easy to recognise the origin of the source material. Based on the 1983 play of the same name by August Wilson, the film adaptation has been a long time coming, with Wilson having penned most of the screenplay before his death in 2005. His masterpiece has been left in safe hands, however, with heavyweights Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the lead roles, and Washington also handling directing duties.
Having previously brought to life the characters of Troy and Rose Maxson in a 2010 reprisal of the play, Washington and Davis slip on their respective roles like a second skin. If I could describe their performances in one word it would be authentic. Raw emotion explodes across the screen with utmost sincerity, especially from Davis. Not once did I find myself questioning these characters, their actions or their motives – everything is gut-wrenchingly believable. At times, I felt as though the screen had dissolved away entirely and I was actually standing alongside them in the backyard of their quaint little suburban home.
While the film’s authenticity is largely owed to this dynamic duo, there is a lot of support from the remaining cast members. Youngest performer Saniyya Sidney is a revelation, as is Mykleti Williamson, who plays Troy’s tender-hearted, yet mentally damaged brother with perfect finesse. Even during moments when members of the ensemble are not the focus of the drama at hand, each of them are still actively engaged in the scene. From the slightest glance or facial inflection, each performer communicates the exact thoughts and feelings of their character toward the situation, adding further tension to the conflict.
Backing up these powerful players is the stunning production design from David Gropman (The Hundred- Foot Journey, Life of Pi). From the textures of the costumes, to the attention to detail in the set – every inanimate object bears the signs of hosting this fractured family and witnessing their interactions over the years. Much like the characters, every element is battered and beaten up; frayed at the edges and falling apart, yet somehow surviving. There’s a beauty in the peeling paint, the weathered bricks and the gnarled, lopsided trees, just like the flawed people who inhabit this home.
Speaking of imperfections, my one quibble with this film is its inability to transform into a truly cinematic experience. Wilson’s hand in both the original script for the stage and the adapted screenplay is a bit of a double-edged sword. While he’s preserved his material, he hasn’t allowed it to evolve for the screen and the result is a film that walks and talks like a play.
With an unnecessarily long runtime (2 hours and 19 minutes), Fences can become a bit of a strain to sit through, especially with so much dialogue. Denzel’s fast-paced deluge of words roll off his tongue like a boxer pounding at a punching bag, and it can all become a bit overwhelming. This works in a way, as words are Troy’s weapon of choice, and in rarely leaving the dilapidated Maxson home, you’re able to experience the oppression felt by these characters, but overall it makes for tough viewing.
Fences is available in Australian cinemas from February 9
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures