With the stage plays, ‘Patio’, ‘Garden Shed’ & ‘The barbeque you started building last summer and still haven’t finished’, failing dismally at the theatre if only for the fact that we’ve just made them up for comic effect, it was left to playwright August Wilson’s 1983 play, ‘Fences’ which became a huge Broadway hit. Starring Denzel Washington, who also took the lead role in the 2010 stage revival along with Viola Davis, as husband and wife Troy and Rose Maxzon he’s a hard working, hard drinking dustman putting food on the table for his equally house proud and devoted wife who keeps him in check. It’s a skill she has honed over the years notably on Fridays when he’s been paid and sits in the back yard with his colleague Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) drinking from a bottle of neat gin and shooting the breeze with his ever fanciful stories which she enjoys correcting with what really happened in the tall tales he tells.
Throw into the mix his sports mad son a talented football player but whose ambition is thwarted by his father’s discipline, his other son from another relationship who is a bit of a dreamer turning up every pay day to borrow money to supplement his days as a struggling musician and his mentally handicapped tuneless trumpet playing brother and then prepare for all manner of antagonism between them.
Set in a 1950’s working class suburb of Pittsburgh the Fences of the title are both physical and allegorical as he builds a fence in his back yard over many years but which also symbolises the emotional barrier he keeps between himself and his sons. Whereas for his wife it’s a means of keeping things in their place, which in this case is her family. Though the fence does finally get built it’s not before a secret that he’s been carrying for years finally outs itself to devastating effect. It’s his wife’s reaction that brings the finest moment from Viola Davis in a show stopping, barn storming, scene stealing speech that towers over the film and has ‘Oscar winner’ written all over it especially after last years #Oscarstoowhite campaign. It’s a performance that attempts to redress the balance from Denzel Washington who dominates appearing in just about every scene in the film – no mean feat when he’s also the director of this his 3rd film in that position. As he’s shown in the past Washington is adept at directing but this has theatre writ large all over it and is especially notable in the early backyard scenes which feature too many wide shots and serve only to highlight the films stage origins.
Added to this is the densely packed dialogue which demands your concentration from the very start and never, ever lets up. In many ways it is even more dialogue heavy than any of Tarantino’s scripts with frequent use of the ‘N’ word but with moments where the lines have an almost tuneful lyricism to them but the film needs and refuses to provide any moments of silence if only to let the audience some temporary relief to reflect on what’s gone on in what is an overlong film.
That said there are some riveting moments none more so than those between the father and son as they argue about him playing for the school football team. Far less successful are the moments with the mentally disabled brother, a role which actors love to play to show off their versatility and usually attracts awards but here just does nothing more than serve to draw attention to itself for no beneficial reason to the film or actor. Unfortunately this is too stagey to be much of a cinematic experience but is only partly redeemed by some great performances.
Here’s the trailer…….