One can imagine adapting a stage play for the screen would be no easy task. Stage and film are very different mediums after all, each offering various limitations and benefits the other does not. That being said, if you are going to adapt a stage play, you’ll already be halfway to greatness with words written by the great American playwright August Wilson and performances from two outstanding actors that have played their parts to Tony Award-winning perfection on Broadway.
It’s hard to say, considering the plethora of impressive turns they’ve put in over the years, but Denzel Washington and Viola Davis may have put in some of their best work here. It’s quite the character-driven piece, a potent, emotional drama that needs two fine actors at the top of their game. Let’s get it out of the way: Washington and Davis are outstanding.
Also directed and produced by Washington, Fences tells of a married couple doing their best to stay afloat in 1950s Pittsburgh, USA. Washington plays Troy Maxson, a hard-headed, passionate, opinionated, often difficult man that works hard, providing for his family by working as a garbage collector. Davis plays Rose, his loving wife, a woman holding steadfast through the trials and tribulations of life, and the challenges that come with keeping tensions between her husband and her children at ease.
The screenplay’s intensity comes from character-driven reveals – some big, some not so big. The family dynamics, the history behind each individual, their hidden anguish, their simmering frustrations, they come to light throughout and provide the film with its sense of unease. The less you know of the plot and the characters, the better.
There’s no denying the hard-hitting nature of this script. Wilson managed to adapt his own stage play for the screen prior to his death in 2005, and delivers a wallop-filled story filled to the brim with moments of honesty, heartbreak and in your face, dialogue-driven confrontations. On occasion, Fences almost feels violent, as brutal revelations and heartfelt altercations beat our characters down to an emotional pulp.
As director, Washington does an adequate, well-intentioned job, although he tends to prefer the scenes play out as simply as possible, with the occasional heavy hand coming into play. Wilson’s words do most of the heavy lifting here, with Washington happy to craft straightforward, safely staged sequences that nail the beats home. The main issue in Washington’s direction lies in just how clear the remnants of the stage are in the film. The first half of the film in particular suffers with its inability to shake off the obvious fact that, yes, this is in fact a stage play adaptation. It doesn’t detract from those acting chops and from some of those hits to the gut, but that invisible stage certainly feels present on a number of occasions.
And if there is a minor qualm to be found in Wilson’s adaptation, it may be found in the film’s overall structure. It only occurs a handful of times, but the transition between each segment often feels awkward and episodic in nature. The rhythm becomes somewhat noticeable, building each section until boiling point and then we’re done, until the next chapter. To be clear, this is no heavy detriment, but it’s still an unfortunate hurdle.
Despite a few small missteps, it’s hard to argue against a film with this many impressive elements. Washington and Davis, with strong support from Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson, are undeniably exceptional, the clear benefit of coming to know their characters in and out from their stage turns. A powerful story about family, responsibility, societal expectations and love, Fences holds an emotional bat and swings away. You’ll feel it.