Fences review: great performances left sitting on the metaphor

Denzel Washington directs and stars alongside Viola Davis in a drama that betrays its origins as a stage play

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Director: Denzel Washington
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Jovan Adepo
Running Time: 2 hrs 19 mins

Let us cut straight to the chase. Yes, it can be a problem if a filmed play does little to accommodate the demands of cinema. Few sensible people unaware of Fences' origins would fail to wonder why the film-makers allowed their actors to spend so much time in the garden. The characters' determination to speak in huge – albeit beautifully modulated – speeches that tell stories from beginning to end admits the wrong kind of unreality. More damaging still is the reliance on a class of thumping metaphor, both visual and verbal, that causes cinema to grind its gears.

It's right there in the title. August Wilson's Fences, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1983, tells the story of a Pennsylvanian garbage man who has never come to terms with the early termination of his baseball career. Denzel Washington, also the director, plays Troy as an infuriating monster whose charm is only exceeded by his self-absorption. He is a very different man to Willy Loman, but there are, nonetheless, reminders of Death of a Salesman. Rose (Viola Davis), Troy's wife, is devoted and long suffering. Troy vents much frustration on his son Cory (Jovan Adepo).

With no Cherry Orchard to chop down, Troy spends the play building a fence that could hardly be more baldly metaphorical if it had that m-word written across its slats. There is also a great deal of talk about baseball – second strikes and so forth – that may be teaching us things about life. (The least said about Troy’s brother, a fool who speaks truth, the soonest dispatched from the memory.)

Thanks heavens for those two key performances. Denzel swells with dangerous charisma. Viola works high emotion from every one of her many lines. They are so good they almost convince us we’re watching a movie.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist