Thursday, 23 February 2017

Film Review: Fences

Based on the play written and adapted by the late August Wilson, Fences is a wall-to-wall masterclass in acting, but it can't help feeling a little trapped by the confines of its source material.

Starring and directed by Denzel Washington, Fences is about Troy Maxson (Washington), an ex-baseball player living in a dilapidated Pittsburgh terrace house during the 1950s. Working as a garbage man to make ends meet, Troy feels a great deal of resentment towards his failed sports career and a series of other decisions that have limited his ability to break free of the rundown house he shares with wife Rose (Viola Davis) and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo).

Even if you're not familiar with the source material, it's immediately obvious that Fences has been adapted from the stage. Everything about the film is like a play, from the way the characters walk and are blocked during scenes to the long, meandering soliloquies filled with abnormally verbose vernacular (see what I did there?) That's not necessarily a bad thing; if anything, it allows the film to delve deep into its characters, themes and overarching ideas.

Which means the film also provides its actors with the perfect platform to on which to act their little butts off - and boy do they. Washington and Davis aren't just acting in Fences; they are ACTING™. This is 100% an actor's film where every member of the cast gets to wring every line of dialogue for all its worth, right down the last drop of heartbreak and pain.

This is evident across the cast but most notably with Washington and Davis; they churn through every scene like a hot knife through butter, carving up every moment with gut-wrenching power and range. In some moments they are loud and terrifying; in others they capture quiet reflection and hushed sadness. If they both earn wins at the Oscars this Sunday, it will be very well deserved indeed.

However, Fences isn't quite as impeccable elsewhere. Washington's direction is unremarkable to say the least; he frames most of the dialogue scenes in simple mid-shots that alternate with close-ups and/or wide shots of the entire room or backyard. 95% of the film is set within the Maxson household, which doesn't give Washington a lot of room to work that's for sure - but a truly excellent director can make even the smallest of spaces feel dynamic and alive. Instead, Fences feels very much like it's theatrical roots in a visual sense - it feels like a set that has been wheeled into view just before the curtain goes up. The score is also minimal, mostly employed only during the montages that divide each 'act'.

The Verdict: 8/10

Washington and Davis deliver an acting tour de force; the supporting cast are excellent also. The lengthy dialogue is pulled straight from the stage and transition well, but the direction and camerawork could have been a little more cinematic to make this film truly pop both visually and emotionally.

Fences is in cinemas across Australia now

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