By Ábel Bede
Stage-to-screen adaptations have a long history of success. Films such as August: Osage County, Amadeus, or The Sunset Limited have all been succesfully adapted for the big screen. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before the adaptation of the 1987 Pulitzer prize and Tony award-winning play Fences.
Troy is a working-class man in the 1950s who lives with his wife, Rose, and 17-year-old son, Cory. Sometimes on paydays, their other son also turns up to borrow some money. On these days Troy usually sits in the courtyard with Rose and his best friend to share and remember stories of the past.
As with all conversation-based films, its success is heavily dependent on its actors, who in this case are more than familiar with the material since they all reprised their roles from the play. This served them well. All of them deliver great performances, especially those who are allowed to shine by the script. Viola Davis’s acting is out of this world. She clearly understands the brokenness and inner tensions of her character; the moment these tensions burst out of her is by far the best scene in the film.
Mykelti Williamson is also splendid as Troy’s younger brother Gabriel, a mentally-disabled war veteran and the only person who is always honest and sees through the masks that hide people’s emotions. The performance of Denzel Washington (who also directed the film) is also strong, however, it seems more theatrical than cinematic at times.
This theatricality is true for the whole film. Washington’s direction does not exploit the cinematic format, meaning that it sometimes feels like a recorded play and not a film. This is not a huge problem, however, since it is character-focused and it does its job extremely well.
Fences is about the people who did not make it. It’s about the complex emotions of those who failed. Troy only tells stories that happened decades ago, the last time he achieved something. He is mentally stuck in that time; he does not want his younger son to try and play football because, in his day, he was not able to get into the team due to the colour of his skin (or at least he convinces himself that this was the reason). Troy knows that he has not achieved anything, and does not want his sons to become anything like him, but in a way does not want them to succeed either since that would only confirm his failure.
He is desperate to be looked up to, so he behaves autocratically with Cory to gain his respect. The only thing he can be proud of is the fact that he is still alive, which he keeps telling himself in a form of a story in which he wrestled with Death and won.
Rose knows she failed as well, but for the sake of her family, the only thing she finds happiness in, she conceals her feelings.
They both repress how they feel for the sake of the other; however, by doing so, neither of them can be happy. As Troy’s best friend says, some people build fences to keep people out, and some to keep people in. In both cases, it is to protect something inside. For Troy and Rose, it is to protect a lie, the lie that their life works. In order to build up and develop all these conflicts the film has to take its time, therefore its first half is quite slow, but never boring.
Fences is a film that can be analysed and talked about for hours. Despite being unoriginal in many ways, it brings the absolute best of theatre to the big screen. The portrayal of such complex emotions only requires pure and magnificent acting, which this film is not lacking at all.
Photograph: George Pankewytch