fences 2016 film review viola denzel

Fences is an adaptation of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson, who also provides the screenplay for the film. The film is set in working class 1950’s Pittsburgh and tells the story of the family of Troy and Rose Maxson, played by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. The writing is serious and layered; this is a level that is rarely brought to the screen. The performances are universally excellent as the film explores a myriad of themes including truth, family, ambition, selfishness, abuse, responsibility and jealousy.

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From the outset, Troy is the charismatic centre of the film – he dominates the opening scenes, telling stories and making the other characters laugh. It appears that their lives revolve around him. It is clear that Troy is a fantastic teller of tales, but what is never clear is how much of what he says is the truth. Stories, true or not, are used by Wilson to explore the ambitions, flaws and frustrations of the characters. Washington gives a towering performance: human and complex, a man unhappy with his lot in life. Viola Davis is also mesmerising as Rose, a woman who has given everything she has for he family. Her performance easily matches Washington during the emotional and verbally violent clashes between their characters. Both actors previously played the characters on stage, and their familiarity with the roles is an advantage when approaching such dense material. In the hands of lesser actors this could have been a let down.

Their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) dreams of playing football, something which Troy sees as pointless, using his own failed ambitions of playing professional baseball to justify his position. Resentments, lost dreams and the disappointments of life are always threatening to burst angrily to the surface. Troy is a man who could explode at any moment, it is far easier to be friends with him than be a member of his family. Rose tries to hold all her frustrations in as best she can and has more strength than her husband. Music and sport are seen as escapes from the day-to-day grind of life, and the characters debate their value throughout. There are lengthy scenes of dialogue which are utterly gripping; words and language are used as weapons by the characters.

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The film never really escapes its theatrical roots, and it is very limited in terms of locations and visually tame. Fences is a welcome antidote to the mindless and badly written noise so prevalent in big-budget modern day cinema. It’s proof that edge-of-your-seat excitement can be provided through character-driven drama, and that it is not necessary to constantly blow things up. Fences is a deeply moving experience, taking on big themes through exceptional writing and riveting performances. It will stay with you long after the film has finished; we can all relate to what August Wilson created.


Dir: Denzel Washington
Scr: August Wilson
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby.
Prd: Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington, Todd Black, Tony Kushner and Jason Sack
DOP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Country: US
Year: 2016
Run time: 139 minutes

Fences is in cinemas now.