Denzel Washington says more in the first 5 minutes of Fences than Casey Affleck does in the entire 137 minutes of Manchester By The Sea. Fences was adapted from August Wilson’s brilliant play of the same name, a 2010 Broadway revival of which garnered Tony awards for both Washington and Viola Davis. Both reprise their roles for the movie, alongside Broadway costars Mykelti Williamson (as Gabe), Russell Hornsby (as Lyons) and Stephen Henderson (as Bono) also rejoining the cast. The performances are thus flawless: believe the hype. But as for the movie, I was less convinced.
The adaptation is a little too literal. A play will necessarily take place in the same few locations, but a movie doesn’t have such limitations. This one sticks closely to its confines, however, and as director, Denzel Washington uses a series of tight shots to further the exposition. The characters, and Washington’s in particular, are talky, prone to excessively lengthy essays that explore 1950s racial tensions in relation to their lives.
After an arduous life, Troy Maxson has just been promoted and will be the first African-American garbage truck driver in Pittsburgh (despite not holding a license). But good news is never so simple in the neighbourhood where he lives, and frankly, neither is Troy. The most compelling thing about this movie is that Washington and Davis give such thorough, riveting performances. Their characters are complicated, interesting, complex. It’s an excellently crafted play, but its transfer to film was a little too minimal for my taste. I needed a little energy between the marathon monologues. Powerful as the sermons may be, too many in a row meant that I was dozing off, sometimes barely able to keep up with the rapid-fire speechifying. And the monotony of the locations and the lack of movement from the cameras made me very aware that Fences was and is a great play but that as it is, it is not a great movie. It’s a true testament to some of the greatest living actors today that they master the language and the rhythms of the dialogue, overcoming the verbosity if sometimes overreaching.
Fences is a bit bloated; at 138 minutes there was plenty of opportunity to lose some fat. Washington is not a strong director, and some of his choices flat-out confounded me, though he mostly is reverential of the work, which is a complaint rather than a compliment. To me this movie is dead in the water as far as the Best Picture race is concerned, but both Denzel and Viola will be in strong contention as far as their roles go. Viola Davis, however, has engaged in some category fraud in order to better her odds: she’s campaigning as a supporting actress when as a matter of fact she constantly steals thunder from Denzel. It’s still early to predict how Oscar will go, but Fences is an electrifying vehicle for some incendiary performances, even if it never reaches true cinematic scope.