Review: Fences – held back by its theatrical roots

Twenty minutes into Fences, I started to wonder if the film was based on a play. It turns out that it is, the film being an adaptation of the critically-acclaimed play of the same name by August Wilson. Both the film and the play tell the story of Troy (Denzel Washington) and Rose (Viola Davis) Maxson and their attempt at building a life for their family, and explore the struggles faced by black Americans in the 1950s.

It isn’t hard to tell that the film is an adaptation of a stage play. The majority of the scenes take place in the main characters’ house and backyard, echoing the traditionally limited environments of stage plays; the dialogue is written with a cadence usually reserved for theatre; and Denzel Washington’s direction mostly stays in the background, opting to rely heavily on the dialogue and the actors’ performances instead of using the wider range of filmmaking techniques—like clever camerawork or visual storytelling—to tell the story.

‘The bare, minimal direction diverts all of the audience’s attention to [Viola Davis’] performance, which makes it all the more powerful’

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington benefit immensely from this direction style. Viola Davis, in particular, shines, stealing the scene whenever she’s on-screen; she delivers every line with earnestness and bleeds emotion without dipping into melodrama. The bare, minimal direction diverts all of the audience’s attention to her performance, which makes it all the more powerful.

The story itself, coupled with the immense performances by the cast, is engaging and emotionally powerful, yet the film feels limited by its commitment to following theatrical conventions. For example, where stage plays have real, physical limits forcing them to rely mostly on dialogue to tell a story, films aren’t; as a result, the dialogue, though beautiful, sometimes feels overlong and like inefficient exposition, bogging the story down; after all, the saying is “show, don’t tell.” The slow pace, perhaps acceptable (and maybe even absorbing) in a live theatre setting, feels slow and plodding in a film.

‘the film feels limited by its commitment to following theatrical conventions’

Though it still makes for an excellent watch, I couldn’t help but feel as though Fences could have been a better film had it taken more risks in its adaptation to the big screen. Film and theatre are fundamentally different storytelling mediums, and an adaptation needs to consciously consider these differences to effectively make the jump from one medium to another.

Mikhail Hanafi

(Image courtesy of David Lee/Paramount Pictures)

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