Fences is a movie I really wanted to love. The claustrophobia, intensity and incredible performances make it immensely powerful and I’m sure it is a wonderful show to watch. The movie, on the other hand, isn’t. Denzel Washington has gathered the cast he performed the show with and put it to screen and that’s literally all he’s done with it. So many of the theatrical techniques and performances, although powerful, don’t translate to the big screen well. How intense and personal this story is, is drastically hindered by the fact that I’m stuck in a room with a screen, not actors. The intimacy is lost and some of the performances come off as over-acted.
Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson and his wife Rose as they struggle to fine balance in 1950’s Pittsburgh. Troy attempts to teach his family valuable life lessons but by trying to implement the hardships he faced onto his children, he ultimately pushes them away. Troy is not a good person and Fences doesn’t try to hide this. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to love about Fences. It just didn’t resonate with me. The story is simple, incredibly personal and has such wonderful dialogue that it really allows its star to show their range.
The major issue that Fences suffers with is that it’s a direct adaptation of August Wilson’s play. There’s certain theatrical techniques theatre can utilise that do not work for cinema. An example I can give would be the idea of an internal monologue. There are scenes where characters have deep internal reflection during a conversation. This can be divulging past life events, but the detail and emotion that these go into do not work in the setting provided. Troy will be talking to his friend, wife and son about past events and the camera slowly pans in on this beautiful performance by Denzel Washington, yet the weight it carries ultimately dissolves. As soon as we zoom out and his family and friend are sat there listening, only for his friend to hop up and say,’ Geez, gotta get back to the wife for dinner,’ makes the monologue lose tension and the intensity it built up.
There are many moments like this and it’s no discredit to the performances. Viola Davis gives one of my favourite performances of the year; exploding on screen with rage, fear and passion. Denzel Washington also gives a world class performance. As this cast have originally all worked on the play together, they are all comfortable with their roles. It’s refined and perfected in every line.
Therein lies another one of my grievances. In theatre, you can have these bombastic performances with high pace and energy between characters. This, again, doesn’t translate to screen. The lines feel too reversed and not like people are thinking about what they are saying.
I haven’t seen the stage show of Fences, but I’m sure it’s incredible. The movie has definitely made me want to see it live, yet it’s such a shame that the movie relies too heavily on theatrical techniques and does explore the medium of film to help tell this story better. I didn’t feel trapped in the confines of the fences Troy is building around his crumbling life. I just felt trapped in my seat.