It’s a long film, but you’ll barely notice.
Fences is based on the Broadway play of the same name, the revival of which in 2010 netted stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis Tony Awards for their performances, a feat they’re both hoping to repeat at this month’s Oscars. You’ll know the film’s based on a play because, as with any straightforward, fiercely loyal adaptation, you can count the characters on your fingers, as you can the locations.
Set almost entirely in and outside the home of former professional sportsman and now trash collector Troy (Washington) and his wife Rose (Davis), whole scenes are shot as if the Director (Washington on double-duty) had only the theatre’s three walls to set the scene, with the characters intermittently relocating throughout the house or its backyard. The conversion of popular plays a staple of Hollywood, with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope notoriously offering the audience a singular point of view, various adaptations such as Picnic or A Streetcar Named Desire (both of which share Fences’ honour of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) made notably better use of space, staging extensive sequences beyond a single setting.
Moreover, each and every scene, as if Washington were still performing on Broadway and had to keep the audience rapt between set changes and the shuffling of furniture, ends with a dramatic flourish or line, awkwardly managed in the guise of cinema which here instead portrays regular, seamless transitions to the exact same household location. Not nearly committing the fatal sins of the 2005 adaptation of The Producers which rendered the film cringeworthy in parts, Fences nevertheless depicts several sequences where characters express themselves all too vociferously for the intimate setting, as if they were trying to reach the very furthest seats in a looming theatre.
Having said that, Washington and Davis together absolutely knock it out of the park. Washington commands most of our attention in one of his best performances to date, whether its confronting the demons of his past or clashing with his two sons who can’t always stand to be around him. Loud and captivating for Fences’ length, it’s still Davis, conversely quieter and with a fraction of the dialogue, who has the biggest impact and whom you will not doubt remember after leaving the cinema.
Owning each of several emotionally-laden sequences, her unshowy demeanour and practised slightness have all the power of a sledgehammer, delivering her lines as Clark Gable proffered his infamous quip at the end of Gone with the Wind, with enough subtleness to drain the room beyond recognition of all else.
Heavy on dialogue in parts for a medium reliant more on showing, not telling, Fences‘ adaptation, if entrancing, will more than anything else make you want to go out and catch the play and hope beyond hope that the exceptionally talented pair one day reprise their roles on stage.
Fences is in cinemas from February 9