Transferring a multi Tony award winning play to the screen was always going to be a delicate balancing act, incorporating the intimacy of theatre with the broad scope of cinema. However, Denzel Washington’s third directorial outing (following Antwone Fisher, The Debaters) does exactly that. Washington delivers a towering adaptation of noted American playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama Fences, which masterly navigates soulful and complex themes in 1950’s Pittsburgh.
Since its lauded Broadway premiere 33 years ago, a film production seemed increasingly inevitable after Paramount acquired the rights back in 1987, with then producer Eddie Murphy also gunning for co-star status, after searching for a suitable vehicle in which to take on a more serious film role. Wilson’s non-negotiable and vocal insistence for an African-American director to helm the substantial venture resulted in several fruitless attempts at filming with the project subsequently lingering in developmental limbo.
After an acclaimed Broadway revival in 2010, Washington and co-star Viola Davis now reunite to bring this muscular and patriarchal drama into cinemas.
Garbage collector Troy Maxson (Washington) shares a half bottle of gin with best friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson) each payday after work. Causally pacing around his cramped backyard, Troy spiels out increasingly bawdy tales before being joined outside by his devoted wife of 18 years Rose (Davis). This first act is a continuous outpouring of Wilson’s heavy yet poetic dialogue; Washington tackles it with gratifying pathos both in front of and behind the camera. Maxson is a man weighed down by past failures and resentments, his frustration seeps out into family life and puts significant strain on Troy’s relationships with his two sons. Whilst Washington’s powerhouse figure looms domineeringly in every frame, it is Davis’ transcendent, emotionally nuanced performance that really steals the show and should see her win a Best Supporting Oscar at the end of the month.
Little has changed from Wilson’s original screenplay (which sees him scoop a posthumous Oscar nomination) ensuring as faithful an adaptation as possible. The ever deepening fractures of betrayal, ego, pride, race and class leads Fences to be a multi-themed narrative from the singular standpoint of an African-American working class family. Fences is part of Wilson’s Century Cycle, which consists of ten plays that span one hundred years and explores family life within Black American culture. Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Far From The Madding Crowd, The Girl On The Train) brings a surprising fluidity to such a contained and often physically restrained film. Shooting in 35mm certainly helps Fences feel less ‘stagey’, adding an authentic aesthetic to the boxy environment. Whilst filming with anamorphic lenses frames facial focus perfectly, lending additional gravitas to the emotionally explosive scenes between Washington and Davis.
Fences does outstay its welcome towards the end with a lengthy two hour and 20 minute run time, however it’s a powerfully rewarding watch that is very much worth protracted effort.
Fences is in UK cinemas now.