Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are perfect in this master class of screen acting
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when the anguished nuance of a Viola Davis performance can be identified solely by the contents of her nose, you know you’re in for something powerful.
To wit, the Denzel Washington-directed take on Fences, the August Wilson play both starred in on a Broadway stage, both claiming the Tony Award for ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Actress’. The latter, albeit in a supporting sense, is almost certainly guaranteed to happen again on Oscar night, third time lucky for Davis, who’ll just be a Grammy away from the mythical EGOT. Washington faces a tougher race to nab his third Academy Award, but ruling out an actors’ actor in and actors’ movie would be a mistake.
In a film dominated by riveting acting, there is a slight sense of missed opportunity. As tough as it is to adapt one entertainment medium into a successful feature film (cf. every video game vehicle ever), turning an award-winning play into an equally satisfying film is not without inherent challenges. Structurally, the limitations of the stage mean that scenes are longer, confined to limited locations, the plot measured and paced to build towards a dramatic conclusion right before the house lights fade to black and the audience respectfully applauds. Plays tell, don’t show, the inverse considered the essential tenet of modern filmmaking.
Fences works as a relatively straightforward translation from a theatrical setting to a real-world set, but the film still limits almost the entirety of its action to the house in which the Maxsons live, give or take the pokey front and back gardens. With only occasional musical flourishes to score the story, the long scenes are filmed in an almost entirely ordinary style, with a third-act introductory montage the only memorable piece of film architecture buttressing the transition from Broadway to Hollywood.
Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, the play opens on a Friday evening. His pay packet in his pocket, Troy (Washington) and his pal are sipping gin in his backyard, shooting the breeze about life’s misadventures and shooting from the hip about a personal gripe at his work with the city’s sanitation department. Rose (Davis) pops out from the kitchen, chastising her husband of 18 years’ flights of fancy, a baseline playing against the rhythmic dialogue deftly dripping from Washington’s mouth, waves of seething frustration and tired ego.
The wrong side of 50, Troy Maxson wears every part of him on his sleeve. A skilled baseball player in his younger days, his shot at the big time failed to connect thanks to the systemic racism of American society (no fault of his own) and a delayed start (for which he has to take the blame). His personal dissatisfaction with his own turns in life finds a resentful release in conversations with his son Cory, a sportsman so promising that a university recruiter is planning on visiting the family – though the opportunity is seen as more of an imposition for a father as envious as he is suspicious.
Troy Maxson, an intense and brooding blend of self-pity and self-admiration, is a perfect character for Washington, an actor so in control he conducts the scenes he’s in like everyone else is a part of his emotional orchestra. Troy is the kind of man who would have fathered Alonzo Harris, the narcotics detective that dominated Training Day, an equally confusing mix of charm and terror. Washington wrings the character’s complexity to its extreme, testing viewers’ sympathies by landing a number of gut punches that bring Troy to the brink of our endurance and beyond.
The intimacy of the production goes hand in hand with the tightness of the story, a family drama stretching the cracks in their lives to breaking point. Such a story asks a lot of the actors telling it, and Washington is matched by Davis’s Rose, rising to his challenge in the film’s most moving scene. A confession changes the very nature of Fences, moving the film away from Troy’s distaste with the shape his life has taken to the price sharing that life has cost the woman by his side. “What about my life? What about me?” Rose demands, her face a battleground for competing bodily fluids, a heartbroken bystander utterly let down.
Not everything works. At times Washington, as director, seems to remember he’s making a movie and not just filming a play, meaning the camera will track a random object like a dropped flower for no good reason, which merely serves to remind you of the shortcomings of its ‘stageiness’. And Gabe, Troy’s brother living with a traumatic brain injury after fighting in WWII, seems like a much bigger performance than the film demands. The same applies to that big moment, which might have worked in the theatrical setting, but which just looks silly here.
Still, a finer pair of central performances you’ll be harder to find this awards season.
Verdict: While the film fails to build upon the story’s new medium in any great depth, the skilled and nuanced performances demand to be seen.
Fences (12A/138mins) is released nationwide on February 17th.