Review: ‘Fences’ Has All The Positives And Faults Of Originally Being A Play
Director: Denzel Washington
Summary: An African-American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and coming to terms with the events of his life.
I’ve written about the fact that often adaptations fail because they don’t realize that different mediums are consumed differently. The movies that are adapted from books who don’t realize that we watch a movie differently from how we read a book. A video game that goes to a movie forgetting that it’s moving from an interactive experience to an inactive experience. A play or a musical are no different as the spectacular failure of Les Miserables a few years ago could show. A director or writer that doesn’t understand this can cripple a excellent production right out of the gate. When I watched Fences I could tell within five minutes that I was watching a play and that made me a little nervous.
Fences has fantastic performances and killer dialogue but a few more tweaks to adapt from stage to screen could have made it great.
A play is largely dialogue and character interactions because there is only so much you can do on a stage. The entire production is usually confined to one or two locations because that’s the easiest way to do things. This is the thing that made it so apparent to me that Fences was a play, since I didn’t know that going in, was the few locations and the way everything was staged. I feel like I could hear a stage hand just off to the side telling people to “enter stage left, exit stage right, adjust the light here” which I’m not sure is a good thing. It would make for a captivating stage production but as a movie it just doesn’t work as well as it could. This is a shame because the things that are on screen are fantastic.
As I said a play is largely dialogue and the dialogue in Fences is fantastic. There is a great back and forth between characters as they tell each other stories and work through their lives. Troy (Denzel Washington) walks and talks like a man who both hates and accepts his place in the world. Washington is nearly unrecognizable in the role with his pot gut and greying hair. The show is stolen by his wife Rose (Viola Davis) in an absolutely heartbreaking role. She is amazing as she deals with heartbreak and her crumbling marriage in ways that are truly gut punching. This is a role she should be recognized for and someone should just give this woman her Oscar already because she deserves it.
I’m not sure if the dissonance between the play and the movie are entirely Washington’s fault as a director. The more I thought about it the more I thought that perhaps this is a story best told through the stage and not the screen. I don’t want to say it’s badly paced but at just over two hours it still felt like there should be an intermission somewhere in the middle because it’s structured just like a play would be. They seemed to think they could just put the play in movie form and call it a day, let the dialogue and performances speak for themselves and they largely do, but there is something lost between the stage and the screen in this case.
Fences has great performances and amazing dialogue but I’m not entirely sure this is a story that should be seen outside of the stage. As a play I can see how this would move people to tears but as a movie I was left wondering how much better it would be if I got to see it on stage. What is on screen is fantastic though even if it felt like something was missing.