There’s a reason why the on-stage version of Fences is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner, it’s an energizing display in dialogue used at a masterful level.
After an entire year of seeing films taken from either original screenplays or alternative adaptations, there is something invigorating about watching a film adapted directly from a medium entirely driven by the words on the page: the theater. There’s a reason why the on-stage version of Fences is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner, it’s an energizing display in dialogue used at a masterful level.
It’s clear for the entire runtime that Fences is centered around fine dialogue, carried by an all-star cast. The film is able to expand on the play’s single location while still remaining contained and true to its roots.
These performers, a small yet mighty ensemble, do not disappoint. At the film’s center (and at the helm as director) is Denzel Washington as Troy, whose charisma and masculine presence reminds us what it means to be a movie star. His character, who ebbs and flows through the entire emotional spectrum, is a man trying to assert himself in a world that has done him no favors. He’s conflicted between what he has worked his entire life for and what has been given to him. He wants the absolute best for his family but his opinion of what that is frequently comes with cynicism and a jaded perspective his wife and children don’t share. And despite his patriarchal dominance, he is a character with his own flaws that frequently drives his family to anger. This is as dimensional a character has ever been, and Denzel is up to the task. There will be few performances that reach heights as great as this one, this year.
And what of everyone else who surrounds him? Next in line for the most dynamic work is Viola Davis, who may not be the film’s center, but certainly conveys as much emotional range as her co-star. For all of Troy’s actions– good and bad– Rose (Davis) is the reaction, the counter-weight that keeps him in check. Despite her limitations due to the era, she never loses her control, a formidable presence filled with love and empathy. I am grateful to see Viola Davis get scene-stealing work, of which she owns every minute doing while on screen.
The remaining cast each get individual moments to shine, most often in back-and-forth exchanges with Troy. I am most moved by Mykelti Williamson, most known for his work as Bubba in Forrest Gump, who brings an earnest sadness to the film as Troy’s war veteran brother who Troy is both responsible for and at times dependent upon. It is here in their fragile relationship where, for me, the film reached the height of its emotional arc. However, other relationships depicted– husband and wife, father and son, friend to friend– provide further moments for audiences to resonate with and latch onto.
It’s clear the cinematic elements are here to service these strengths, and with a script and characters like this, that is more than enough.
‘Fences’ is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, and some suggestive references. 138 minutes. Now playing in theaters everywhere.