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Fences (2017)

Based on August Wilson's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and adapted to screenplay before his death in 2005, Fences has been long in the waiting. There had been previous attempts adapt Fences to film (the rights were first purchased in 1987 with Eddie Murphy penciled in to star), but this had repeatedly been pushed back as Wilson remained adamant that it was directed by an African-American. Having directed twice before, and knowing the source material inside out from his Tony Award turn as the lead, Denzel Washington has taken the plunge and taken his place behind, as well as in front of the camera. With much of the stage cast reunited, including now Academy Award winner Viola Davis (also a Tony Award winner for the same role on stage) it is immediately apparent this has been made without a lot of love and respect for the original source material.
Fences is a family drama in 1950s Pittsburgh, honing in on Troy Maxson (Washington), and his views on the world around him, parenthood, relationships and family responsibility. For much of the first act Troy is a larger than life, and lovable epitome of masculinity. He is full of stories, adores his wife, works hard, and lives for the Friday pay day. He's faced hardships, and continues to fight for his place in the drivers seat of the garbage van instead of lumping empty bins in to the back. I initially found Troy an easy character to like (if from a distance), could sympathise with his motivations and struggles and was thus happy to go along with the bravado. Eventually, the harsh treatment of those around him (his two sons in particular) make that a bit more difficult. Eventually, as his bitterness towards the world around him is exposed, and the story's big revelation divulged, I really struggled to empathise with Troy at all. I was often siding with his sons (aspiring musician and athlete alike), but Viola Davis' Rose even more so. Washington's performance is superb and that ferocity is something I would have loved to see live on stage. It's Davis that shines through though and I'm really pleased her performance has been recognised with those awards. For much of the film she's refrained and reserved, riding the Troy ride with all it's bumps and jumps, until it all comes to a head and she explodes. It's a shame much of that outburst was in the trailer, but I was relieved that didn't lessen the emotional impact at all.
My biggest gripe with fences is how un-cinematic it feels. The dialogue is fantastic, but there is so much of it coming at your in a steady stream that it began to bog it down. Never has an interval been so necessary. It never feels organic, and despite switching between rooms, the house yard and odd location shot, the 2.5 hours of people standing around talking feels 'stagey' throughout. There are lots of examples of plays being translated successfully from the stage. Dial M For Murder (1954), and 12 Angry Men (1957) are largely in one room the whole time but couldn't be more immersive, and it's impossible to tell A Few Good Men (1992) was based on a play at all. As Fences is so monologue heavy, the lack of breather was really notable. Despite the film often getting stuck on the dialogue, the quality of the text is also it's greatest strength, and acts a platform for those excellent performances.

I also found the ending a tad cheesy and that really jarred. I heard Simon Mayo interview Denzel Washington about Fences and the Troy character. Washington argued with Mayo as to whether Troy was a liar or not, and came across as a man that had spent so long playing this character on stage that he had begun to sympathise with him despite all of his flaws. You could argue that immersing yourself in that character is essential for an actor, but on this occasion I felt it came across in that finale and it all felt a bit heavy handed.

Fences was the last of the Oscar nominated films on our list to watch. For me it may be bringing up the rear of that list (along with Lion) but in what's such a strong year that's no bad thing, and I'm glad it's performances received recognition. It's an interesting watch that I would definitely recommend. As much as I loved La La Land (the backlash since it's success has really grated with me, and had it been released a month later I think it would have won), I'm so happy that they eventually found the right envelope and awarded Best Picture to Moonlight. Having now seen it I can understand the late push for Denzel Washington as Best Actor, but Casey Affleck's turn in Manchester By The Sea was one of the best in recent memory in my opinion. We've been really spoilt this January with what has been such a high caliber Oscar season, so I hope that isn't followed by a slump. We have Logan, John Wick 2, and then Patriot's Day and Get Out just round the corner too so there's definitely enough to get me excited still.


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