Film Review: Fences (USA, 2016) proves too faithful to the original stageplay to shine as a film

Films adapted from a stageplay have always offered mixed results. While we have classics like ChicagoGlengarry Glen Ross and Sweeney Todd, we often have disasters like Rent and Mamma Mia! The reason for this is either because the stories of these plays or musicals do not have enough cinematic potential to succeed as a film-viewing experience or the director isn’t capable enough to realize that potential.

So when I heard that Denzel Washington‘s next directorial project was Fences, a film based on a stageplay that he had starred in alongside the majority of the cast (including Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson and Russell Hornsby) from the play reprising their roles, it tickled my curiosity. So, does Washington succeed by jumping over the fence?

Set in the 1950’s, Denzel Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a waste collector who lives with his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). He spends the long shifts of work, doing what he can for his family, alongside his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson).

We see frequent visits from other members of the family like Troy’s estranged son from another marriage, Lyons Maxson (Russell Hornsby) who frequently comes over the family home asking Troy for money; and from Troy’s brother, Gabriel Maxson (Mykelti Williamson), who sustained a head injury from World War II, leaving him mentally impaired.

Throughout the course of the film, we see the development of the characters and how much they feel constricted and restrained in their environment to the point that when the film reaches the third act, the characters will reach their breaking point. In other words, it’s not pretty.

With this much acting talent and with Denzel Washington at the helm and a critically acclaimed screenplay by August Wilson, who also wrote the stageplay, why is it that I don’t like the film as much as I wanted to? Probably because it’s just a stageplay playing on a cinema screen and not an actual film.

Let’s get to the positives first. With the exception of one, the acting is absolutely stellar. Considering that Washington and Davis both won Tony Awards for their performances in the original production, it’s expected. Washington shows both charisma, cockiness and menace in a compelling manner, while Davis surprises, breathing life into a typical supporting wife role that could’ve been a waste of talent, but she easily upstages Washington.

Jovan Adepo does good work as Cory, the conflicted son who wants to achieve his dreams but also wants to impress his father, leading him with some very impressive and intense scenes with Washington. Stephen Henderson is fantastic as Bono that he make it incredibly easy to believe that he is best friends with Troy, as the two share wonderful chemistry, whether its friendly banter or heart-to-heart talks.

Russell Hornsby is also convincing as Troy’s estranged son, Lyons, as he provides ample proof of again, cockiness and charisma, that he makes it easy to believe that his character is the son of Troy. But the exception out the cast is Mykelti Williamson. I don’t know whether I was meant to take him seriously or to laugh with him, so I laughed at him instead. The acting borders on comical that it almost feels that he just wondered in on set and no one bothered to tell him that they were filming.

Speaking of his character and flaws of the film, Gabriel basically embodies the trope of what I like to call the “bullshit-detector”; i.e. the character that despite their lack of social skills reveals the flaws and warts about the characters around more than the characters realize and is basically present in the film to add artificial tension. Michael Shannon is a blatant example of that in the film Revolutionary Road, in which they are more like plot devices rather than actual characters.

And don’t get me started on Gabriel’s role in the ending, which I didn’t believe for a second, despite the religious imagery peppered throughout the film i.e. the Jesus plate in the kitchen. It doesn’t help that the character of Troy is unlikable and unsympathetic that the ending even makes him more repugnant as it is made obvious that even after the events of the film, Troy is still using his brother Gabriel for his own ends.

Another flaw is the stagy feel, leaving the film lacking in cinematic panache that would have benefited the storytelling. There are scenes where Troy recounts his past that could have benefited from flashbacks to that time to keep the film interesting, but Washington never realizes that potential, leaving those scenes surprisingly lifeless as well as dragging the film’s already long running time.

Oddly enough, there’s a scene in the end of the film where two characters share a song together that is really effective in showing how big of an influence one can have on another, regardless of how they feel. But it is again ruined by a scene that feels so fake and unearned that it you wish it was cut out and it finished with the song. And once again, you guessed it, it involves Williamson’s performance.

The stagy feel even affects the performances. While the loud, unhinged performances may work on a stageplay but on film, the performances may come across as unintentionally funny at times, like Davis’ performance when she confronts Troy about a choice he made as well as Williamson’s performance throughout the film.

And you would think that the performances were blatant enough to deliver the film’s messages and themes for the audience to understand, there are some egregious uses of dialogue and visual metaphors that comes across as cheesy, insistent and quite insulting.

Lines of dialogue like “fences were built to keep people… maybe they are built to keep people in” or visual metaphors like a rose being crushed on a fence before falling to the ground while Rose gets upset (damaged Rose with a damaged rose, get it?) just fall flat and could even inspire unintentional laughter.

So even with the acting and the talent behind the camera, Fences was a disappointment. The majority of the cast in the film were fantastic with their roles and August Wilson‘s screenplay shines at times, but the flat yet blatant direction, the unsubtle storytelling and Mykelti Williamson‘s performance just inspired me to want to build a fence around it.

I realise that this review may polarise many but hey, as this film taught me, you “gotta take the crookeds with the straights.”

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Fences is in Australian cinemas today.