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HomeArts & CultureFilm review: The acting is centre stage in Denzel Washington's Fences

Film review: The acting is centre stage in Denzel Washington's Fences


Director: Denzel Washington

Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson

Three stars

Denzel Washington stars in and directs this adaptation of August Wilson’s award-winning play, the sixth in his acclaimed 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle, each of which deals with a different decade of the 20th century from the black American perspective. Fences takes place in the 1950s.

Washington starred as 50-something binman Troy in a 2010 New York stage revival, alongside Viola Davis as his long-suffering wife, Rose. The actors both won Tony awards and reunite for the film adaptation.

Both of them deliver performances as good on screen as they were on stage.

Washington has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, while Davis is favourite to win Best Supporting Actress, having won that prize at the Baftas last weekend.

Washington always seems especially invigorated when playing flawed men – and Troy, an overbearing and dictatorial father and wayward husband, has foibles to rival the actor’s turns as Malcolm X, corrupt detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day, and alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker senior in Flight.

As Rose, Davis displays a different kind of strength and emotional resourcefulness than with her Emmy-winning turn as lawyer Annalise Keating in popular TV drama, How to Get Away With Murder.

While the performances cannot be faulted, the same cannot be said of Washington’s direction in his third gig behind the camera.

With the action mostly taking place in the marital home, primarily the backyard where Troy is building a new fence – there is a constant awareness that this movie started out as a stage play. Although filmed on location in Pittsburgh, Washington is not tempted to take the opportunity to show more of the city.

Some shot decisions seem so focused on Troy that other characters fail to elicit much empathy. On stage, pregnant pauses allow the text to breathe. On screen, they slow the action. The frame becomes a coffin, killing tension and narrative momentum.

As a result some of the themes of Wilson’s text and its baseball metaphors do not quite hit a home run. Still, it is essential viewing because the acting hits it out of the park.

* Kaleem Aftab

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