Directed by Denzel Washington

ef50e360-68a6-0134-cdb7-0aec1efe63a9The effect of live theater is to take us to a place of intimate connection. Theater focuses our attention directly at the people on a stage, speaking words on a set which is, itself, merely a representation of a particular time and place. Film, on the other hand, must downplay these representations in exchange for the reality of time and place – a push away from suspension of disbelief and out in to a real world. As a result, work written for the stage often suffers terribly when adapted for the screen. In the process of pushing out, it’s too easy to lose intention…words and actions become overly dramatic, or worse, unfocused entirely.

Happy to say, however, that this production of “Fences” is NOT one of those failures. It is a masterwork of words, emotion, time, and performance. Denzel Washington, the director, has smartly placed the majority of his film’s action in a small backyard, a de facto stage set that also works as an effective cinematic environment. This allows us to relax in to this world, sit back and enjoy great words coming from the hearts of  great actors. To be fair, the opening scene is very theatrical (as it must be to grab a theater audience by the throat). But onscreen it initially feels slightly artificial…like Denzel is pushing…or rather, has arrived at an emotional place before we have. However, this is in no way a lasting problem. Within minutes, you adjust, and happily enter the world of these characters.

There are very few words to describe what Denzel, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson and Stephen Henderson accomplish in this film. But appropriate words might include perfection, committed, astonishing, heartbreaking and passionate. Ms. Davis, especially, is simply incredible. The smallest phrase at an almost inaudible volume is enough to crush you (which is exactly what she will do to the competition come awards time – excepting Natalie Portman….MAYBE). Williamson’s, Gabriel, is perfection as the ultimate empathetic foil to Mr. Washington’s hurricane of rage, humor, disappointment and life. This collection of veteran actors, who have benefited greatly from living in these character’s skin for an extended period of time in a previous stage production, are amongst the finest ensembles to grace a screen.

In terms of pacing, Washington has dealt with the theatrical structure with subtle fades, evoking the requisite change in time and season in a non-intrusive manner. As a result, the film never feels forced or shoehorned, and the sky-high stakes remain at the forefront of every second of the film’s two-plus hour running time. And, for the record, rather than being aware of that length, you, instead, lean in to the massive crescendo of the film’s final twenty minutes or so.

While Marcelo Zarvas’ score is nondescript, it never gets in the way, either – choosing simple themes for a simpler time over dramatic bombast. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s photography, on the other hand, is spectacular. Creating a realistic world out of a single patch of grass – a world that not once feels stilted – is extraordinary work, indeed.

And, well, what the hell am I going to add about August Wilson’s play that hasn’t been said? It’s a beautiful, lyrical and inspiring collection of words…that look and sound just as good projected on to a screen as they do live on the stage. An experience simply not to be missed.

Written on 12/30/2016

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