It can be difficult to judge a film adaptation of a beloved play having never seen a theatrical performance of said drama. Where does judgement of the source text, which influences visual and story components, evolve into criticism of the original filmmaking? Such a dilemma is very much present with Denzel Washington’s big-screen take on August Wilson’s Fences, adapted for cinema by the late playwright. Washington, whose third directorial feature this is, is at best a passable director, displaying no real intuition in bringing this admirably sincere project to a new medium. Fences is, however, a great forum for Washington’s other area of significant talent: his central performance as Troy- a trash collector in 50s Pittsburgh struggling with cultural changes and shifting family dynamics- is the most impressive and thorough showcase of his talent for some time. Washington carries a flawed grace and humanity like few of his contemporaries, and a role worthy of his range is rare and to be treasured. As his wife Rose, Viola Davis is as talented as always, but highly unremarkable: her arc and the physical journey she takes her character on during the film is quite predictable; Davis has simply played the same type of woman too many times now to make an impact. Troy’s brain-damaged brother, played by Mykelti Williamson, is the sensitive heart of the story, contributing a necessary layer of emotional substance to a film that’s- for much of its first half- extremely slow and extremely cold.
Exploring a pre-Civil Rights era of black America, Wilson’s script is a surprising twist on the domestic drama of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons: it shares that play’s unsubtle teachings on greed and violence, but also its brilliant perspective on conflicts of masculinity and the opaqueness of the traditional America father/son relationship. Fences‘ observations on Troy’s family, and their difficulties in living their lives around a difficult man, ring with a certain immediacy, which one imagines is even more powerfully conveyed on stage.
A more experienced director may have elevated the written material with some filmic flair, but as a faithfully-adapted product of the stage, Fences undoubtedly succeeds.