Fences is an adaptation of the Tony award-winning stage play by August Wilson, and clearly a passion project of Denzel Washington, who played the lead in a recent revival of the show. He brings it to the screen as director with all the adult cast from the theatre production intact, including himself as alpha-male Troy Maxson and Viola Davis as his loyal but long-suffering wife Rose. Both they and the film itself were Oscar-nominated, and as I write, Davis has just garnered a Best Supporting Actress statuette. It's well-deserved.
The film version of Fences threatens to be a one-man show, with the character of Troy towering over all else. He's a garbage disposal worker and one-time professional baseball hopeful, who parades his blue-collar credentials as a grim badge of pride. Here is a larger-than-life character - a blustering storm of hoary old stories, self-aggrandizement and chip-on-shoulder raging against his employers. His determination to be a more dependable father than his own ever was, laudable in itself, verges on tyranny. And for all his do-the-right-thing protestations, he struggles with demons that will threaten his family life before the story is done.
Troy is described at one point as 'filling the house', and Washington's performance certainly fills the cinema screen with a power and velocity that seldom lets up. It's almost too big at points, and the more subdued performances of his fellow-actors provide a welcome counterpoint. Davis in particular does more with silence than Washington does with noise - and when she does finally let her feelings out, it'll remind you of why she gained that Oscar statue. There's a whole lot to be said for understatement.
If this showcase of fine acting has one flaw, it's that it never takes flight from its stage play origins to work as a film. The screenplay keeps much of the action around the Maxson household, with an entire outside world alluded to, while seldom being shown. When Corey arrives home in his football gear, it feels like he's walked on set rather than from a sports field. Key characters only referred to, need to be shown. In truth the dialogue-heavy script, which no doubt works a treat in a theatre, needs chopping and rearranging, so that the world of the play can be thrown open for the screen.
Cinema needs to work in its own terms - and sadly, for all its strengths, this doesn't. See it however for a clutch of excellent actors at the top of their game - for Washington's grandstanding and Davis' dignified, award-winning tears. The latter alone are worth your ticket price.