“Fences” is a strange film to watch. For long periods I enjoyed the experience as the performances and the script were admirable, but at the same time I felt slightly underwhelmed when it reached its conclusion. This is partly down to the fact that the film dragged towards the end, but it’s also because it felt as though it belonged on the stage rather than the big screen.
This doesn’t make “Fences” a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a criticism which has been fairly raised in a number of reviews. “Fences” just isn’t the most entertaining of films – it’s strong from a technical standpoint, but it doesn’t demand your attention. For the most part this movie focuses on events taking place in the back garden of the main character’s house; it’s a dialogue-heavy piece and it’s often visually mundane. Nevertheless, there’s something oddly refreshing about the grounded story that it attempts to tell, and having gone to see it with low expectations I was pleasantly surprised by its overall quality. I appreciated Washington’s performance and I was impressed by his direction as well – it felt like his vision was well-realised, so I respect what he achieved even if I don’t necessarily agree with the direction in which he took the film.
Personally, I think that the film’s story would’ve been better served if things hadn’t been confined to the comfort of Troy Maxson’s (Washington) house, because there’s something jarring about the restriction that the singular setting places on the film as a whole. When it comes to translating something from the stage onto the big screen there are going to be certain limitations, but this is an adaptation and as such there should be room to make changes for the sake of improving the cinematic experience. It makes sense to restrict the setting from a budgetary standpoint, and it does fit thematically with the nature of the film, but by the end I lost interest in what was happening on screen because the movie felt like it wasn’t going anywhere both narratively and geographically.
With this said, I should elaborate on the fact that this film’s narrow focus fit with its themes when it came to the setting. “Fences” is about the fact that these characters are trapped by their commitment to one another and also in their ways, which makes sense of the film’s title as well as its tagline. As such, it’s an intelligent decision to have the audience confined to the world that Troy and Rose (Viola Davis) have built. It gives the film a claustrophobic feel which mirrors the way that the characters are feeling, and it allows the audience to sympathise with Troy even though his attitude is outdated, as we spend a lot of time with him and get an insight into the limitations of his stable but humdrum existence.
I find it surprising that there wasn’t more of a buzz surrounding this film during award season, because to me it feels like a movie that The Academy would like. It has the emotional conflict that most good films need and it also boasts an undoubtedly superb lead performance from Denzel Washington, a man who is obviously respected in Hollywood. It’s the most passionate performance I’ve seen from him in a long time and he balanced directing and acting incredibly well, so it’s a bit of a shame that more people aren’t talking about this movie.
There are smart decisions being made throughout, because whilst it does feel very theatrical this is embraced in the way that the movie is shot and Washington often allows the camera to linger in order to get a reaction out of scenes which could’ve fallen flat. Regularly you’ll find that the whole room is in frame when conversations are relaxed and stories are being told, but as tension mounts and tempers flare the camera focuses in on one character and lets them portray their emotions. This is simple cinematography and in most cases it’s the natural way to frame a scene, but it works well in this movie as it plays into the theatrical nature of the film. In a theatrical production your eyes will be drawn to the person who is speaking when they’re heated or in the middle of a conversation, whereas when things are quiet and a scene is building you’ll survey the stage for smaller details of each actor’s performance, so it makes sense that this film does that work for you given the medium.
I have to say that I liked this film quite a lot despite the issues I have with it; the two lead characters were well defined and the performances were superb, and it was a film to be appreciated if not always enjoyed. Viola Davis was excellent and more than deserving of her Oscar win, (although she was definitely playing a lead character in this film and as such shouldn’t have been nominated as a supporting actress), and her performance was definitely my favourite aspect of the film.
The only real qualm I had with “Fences” was that it dragged towards the end, because I felt as though it could’ve been a great film had it shown some restraint. As a theatrical piece the pacing would’ve been more palatable because there would’ve been an intermission in the middle, but without this break the film overstays its welcome. This is a shame because by the end you’re actually waiting for the movie to finish, taking away from a story which is often moving and very much relatable.
This merges into the issue that I mentioned earlier which is that this is an adaptation and should’ve been treated as such. There are scenes and characters in this movie which could’ve and perhaps should’ve been cut out to streamline the experience, not because they weren’t good in isolation, but because the movie as a whole would’ve benefited by being more condensed and having more clarity in how its story was presented. For instance, Troy has a mentally handicapped brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who often appears out of nowhere in the middle of a scene when his presence isn’t necessary. He doesn’t ruin any of the scenes he’s in and Williamson’s performance is fine, but the character just feels superfluous. I can see how seeing Troy interact with his brother could humanise him and thus make the movie more effective from a conceptual standpoint, but given the strength of Washington’s performance I really don’t think that this was required. Troy is often presented as the villain of the piece and he undoubtedly makes mistakes, but I could definitely understand his perspective even if he wasn’t always likeable.
So, “Fences” is a good film carried by terrific performances and accomplished direction. Denzel Washington thrives in the lead role and Viola Davis deserved to win the Oscar given that she was placed in the supporting actress category. Unfortunately, I feel that certain choices were made regarding this film’s production which limited its potential, but it’s still a movie that I admire in a lot of ways and would happily watch again.