Did you know that Moonlight was based on a play? No. I didn’t either but Barry Jenkins’ work on transferring the original stage format to the big screen is a admirable; working the story the best way for a cinematic audience. It is important for people to realise that the two mediums are different. For shows, dialogue is vastly important whilst in film, you have to strip a lot of it away and rely on your actors presence, acting, and movement to tell the story as well as the imagery.
With Fences, a Denzel Washington directed version of August Wilson’s acclaimed stage play, there has been no conscious adaption and the overall product feels like an intense version of the original show.
Fences revolves around Troy and Rose, a happily married black couple living in 1950s Pittsburgh. During their time, they have to tackle with racial implications, their hot-headed children, money struggles, and Troy’s larger than life behaviour. As the times and seasons change, tensions are placed between them. Can their love and marriage survive every curve-ball that life is throwing?
Encroaching the screen with ferocity, our two leading stars quake with fervent emotion and the palpable struggle of their characters. Having already played opposite one another on the stage, Viola Davis and Denzel Washington invigorate the roles with an energy and life – completely fleshing out the story with heightened feeling. Davis so rightly earns the awards and acclaim that she has been getting throughout this season because she is tremendous. She quakes with sorrow, she bursts with happiness, and her monologues are filled with ferocity that Davis power hits you deeply. Denzel is a great leading man and his Troy, as unlikable as he is, genuinely played with a humanity and skill that only Washington has. Together, they bring life to a film that would’ve wallowed in speeches and stage directions.
Coming back to Viola Davis’ Rose – the only woman on screen. Now, a large part of Fences is about Troy’s struggle with his insecurity. The focus is on his lack of life: His unhappiness at never making it in sports, his abusive and torturous childhood, and the respect vacant from his sons. Yet Troy never warrants vindication or even empathy with his actions. Looking beyond Washington’s admittedly superb performance, the character fills the screen with an arrogant temperature that lays waste to everyone around him. With modern eyes, this period piece falls flat because the concentration should be on Davis’ Rose.
She’s the true protagonist here and her perspective of events would’ve been a much needed freshness to the old age story of a man who can do many terrible things and get away with it. Sturdy and strong-willed, Rose is his wife who, from our modern perspective, should’ve walked away countless amounts of times from this man. Rose is a woman who simply does and her sturdy position by her husband no matter how many times he hurts her (emotionally) should’ve been the arc of the tale. Why would a woman of her valour and fortitude stay with him? Is it because of her complete love for him or her social standing? Why would she willingly denounce him but then beckon others to forgive him? This absent exploration largely irritates the overall product of the film.
Fences does well due to the leading roles and there is a stirring story in here. Ultimately, however, it is wasted on an unlikable character who actually gets some redemption despite not necessarily earning it whilst better characters are forced into accepting him. The finale feels too heavy-handed and too forgiving to work with the flow of the film. That being said, Washington and Davis capture the heated and tense relationship between Troy and Rose so greatly that you can forgive its sins. Much like many forgive Troy’s.
Fences is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!