Denzel Washington is the outspoken patriarch of a working class African-American family in the 1950’s, trying to raise his family whilst also attempting to relive his own life through his son, Jovan Adepo.
Ok so straight off the bat, I don’t think Fences is a film. It’s based on a play and is delivered just like that, as a play. I have seen plays on stage that are more cinematic than this is. I don’t think the problem is that the material wouldn’t lend itself to cinema, just not like this. This is a two and a half hour movie that spends about ten minutes away from the back yard of the house. Some people may not have a problem with this, but I did.
The performances here are all very performancey of course because it’s a play, at no point do any characters seem real and I don’t think they’re meant to. Fact of the matter is that people in real life (and people in films) don’t speak like this. For sure they are eye-catching, and show the full range of acting but I didn’t relate or empathise with a single one of them. It also suffers from the central character – Washington’s – being entirely loathsome. From the minute he started monologuing I couldn’t stand his company. And I can’t quite decide if this was intentional or not, because while he comes across as a brash rude compulsive liar the film is clearly from his perspective. Now I don’t think it’s inherently a problem to make films about unlikable people, or even completely loathsome people as long as it has something interesting to say. And you know what, I think there is some interesting character work going on in Fences. Shame that it’s completely stifled by the format and lack in any aesthetic quality whatsoever. What I mean by lack in aesthetic quality is not that it just doesn’t look good (which it doesn’t) I mean that it just doesn’t look like anything. There is no style to fences whatsoever. It’s not a piece of gritty realism about real people with real struggles, because there’s no grit (and as I earlier said these are not real people). And it’s also not a good looking movie.
The problem is that all of the factors add up to make a film that just cannot maintain concentration for its runtime of around two and half hours. There is no escape from Denzel. Much as his family cannot escape his odious personality, neither can the audience. Viola Davis to her credit does give a stirring performance, though I just find it very difficult to empathise with characters that speak like this, in this setting. Because it isn’t theatre any more, this is the movies and you need to actually adapt. Hence the word adapted. All that’s been adapted from the stage to the screen is a couple of close ups, but you know what they aren’t interesting close ups and if you’ve seen any of those live theatre productions in the cinema you’ll know that they do close ups as well.
Now, I do think there is some interesting work going on here. I really do. Fences has something to say, but it just cannot figure out how to say it in this medium. And Denzel doesn’t appear to have tried at all to translate it. Unfortunately for me Fences is a failure. Viola Davis puts her heart and soul into the movie, it’s just a shame that the lacklustre nature of the film itself stifles this.