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For his third directorial effort, Denzel Washington, star of Training Day and most recently The Magnificent Seven, chose an interesting film in which to further demonstrate his directing ability. Interesting, in the sense that, Fences, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning stage play of the same name by August Wilson, is first and foremost a showcase for his cast.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences follows Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a former professional baseball player who now makes a living as a garbage man. Supported by his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), Troy tries to care for his sons from two different marriages, Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby).  The performances across the board are incredible with the cast remaining relatively small, rounded out by Stephen Henderson as Troy’s best friend, Bono, and Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Troy’s older brother who sustained a head injury during World War II and now believes he is a herald for God. With heavyweights such as Davis and Washington leading the show, it would be easy for lesser actors to fall under their shadow but the cast, particularly young Adepo and Williamson, more than hold their own when sharing the screen.

Washington’s direction provides further support. Clean and efficient, it doesn’t distract from what is happening on the screen but rather allows the space for the performances to breathe. That is not to say that the direction is simple but rather it is constantly in service of the performances. Apart from a few instances, the camera is often static, mirroring the feeling of watching events play out on the stage. Sometimes this works to the films advantage as it provides a strong sense of location. Other times it can feel stilted.

A similar problem is found in the pacing, which is quite irregular. However as the film quite faithfully adapts the stage play, it is possible that this is inherent in the translation from stage to screen. With the screenplay written by Wilson himself, possibly greater deviations from the original could have resulted in a more dynamic experience.

And yet, everyone will leave the theatre talking about Davis and Washington as both actors give powerhouse performances that are nuanced, emotionally charged and speak to the incredibly complex characters they are inhabiting. At the centre is Washington, whose Troy Maxson is a proud man born too early to make anything of his life. A drinker, a womanizer and a man who loves to sing and tell stories that may or may not have happened. Though the character is gifted with a few powerful monologues, it is the quieter moments, particularly in scenes with Troy’s brother, Gabe, which Washington truly stands out. Every time he sees his brother it is a reminder of a life destroyed and that pain, that sadness, is writ large across Washington’s face.

Davis by comparison, plays a woman who is struggling to keep her family together and hold them tight. A subtler performance than Washington’s, Davis nonetheless conveys the daily struggle of loving a man like Troy, a man who may not always deserve it. In the scenes where the pair duke it out, one has the feeling of watching two elite athletes at the top of their game, locked in this constant push and pull. It is a sheer pleasure to watch.

In cinemas now

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