Simplicity is the name of the game in Fences, the new film adaptation of playwright August Wilson's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of family, death and betrayal set in 1950s Pittsburgh. Acclaimed actor Denzel Washington does double duty both as director and in the starring role of Troy Maxson, a flawed man whose age once stood in the way of a transition from the Negro Baseball Leagues to the majors—a hurt he carries with him and that seems to inform his hardened sensibilities as a father, a husband, a caretaker and a provider.
Washington is, of course, plenty familiar with the role, having appeared in over 100 performances of the Tony-winning 2010 Broadway reprisal alongside Viola Davis, who also plays Troy's wife Rose in the film version. Stage-to-screen is no easy feat, but Washington deftly navigates the potential perils of cinematic minimalism by flat-out embracing them—Fences, for the most part, adheres to a mere two sets: the Maxson home and backyard. It's here that Troy spins tall tales of legendary family dogs and tangles with death himself. He seemingly believes he knows how everyone should live, from his close friend and fellow garbage man Bono (Stephen Henderson) to his sons Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), but his air of authority belies the haunting truth that he once envisioned great things for himself, and now resents his buttoned-down lifestyle while quietly longing for what might have been.
Washington is riveting, able to transition from charming, lighthearted nonsense to a painfully detached narcissism without missing a beat, a performance all the more impressive when we take into account the theatrical pace of the dialogue. Davis, however, acts circles around everyone as an aging mother trapped between a strained love for her overbearing husband, an instinctive desire to do right by their sons and her own sense of loss and disappointment.
Angels in America scribe Tony Kushner provides uncredited tweaks to the screenplay, which Wilson was unable to complete before his death in 2005, but make no mistake—Washington makes Fences his own by practically disappearing into a career-defining performance and one of the finest films of this or any year.
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Directed by Denzel Washington
With Washington, Davis, Adepo, Hornsby and Henderson
Violet Crown, DeVargas, Regal, PG-13, 138 min.
+Stellar performances; brilliant source material
-Slightly too long; play-to-film not for everyone