Oh, Denzel. Your charisma knows no bounds. The character that Denzel Washington is playing in Fences, a working-class father and husband who spends most of his time complaining about how hard he’s had it and telling off his kids whenever they try to follow their dreams, is, quite frankly, a bit of a shit. He is selfish, jealous, and often disrespectful to those that love him. And yet he’s still highly watchable, particularly when acting opposite the ever-solid Viola Davis, who pretty much steals this film. When you have two lead actors that are so powerful, playing characters that are so flawed and multi-faceted, their performances are enough to carry the movie. Which is lucky in this case, because the movie itself is dull as dishwater.
It’s set in 1950s Pittsburgh, and Washington and Davis play a married couple who hang around in the back yard and talk about life, and stuff, whilst being visited by various family members and friends. Denzel is in the director’s chair here, and this perhaps explains why the film is so…safe. It is conventional with a capital C, and takes zero risks when it comes to its ‘cinematic’ elements. The script is actually an adaptation of a play, and this is painfully apparent from the offset; the whole thing looks like it is taking place on a stage, the characters deliver dense paragraphs of dialogue while standing/sitting around, and the movement of the camera is sluggish enough to make you feel quite sleepy.
Nearly all of the film’s ‘action’ takes place in the yard (near some fences, aptly) and occasionally moves into parts of the house. A more seasoned director may have used this spatial restriction to their advantage, but Denzel’s style isn’t interesting enough to be impactful and so the whole thing ends up looking rather flat. Whilst I was watching this I found myself longing instead to be watching 12 Angry Men, a film which is as minimal as you can get in terms of location and characters, and yet screams with tension. Sidney Lumet was able to generate claustrophobia just by choosing to frame a character’s face a certain way, and I wish Denzel had dared to stray from convention a little more so that Fences could be somewhere closer to striking. It certainly had the potential to be.The sound design and music, too, are so blandly indistinct as to be barely there. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that the film had a score if I hadn’t scribbled a reminder to myself on my notepad to listen out for one. It sinks into the background along with the cinematography and editing and all of this background-level banality combines to elicit questions, like: why was this play made into a film? Has any thought been put into how the material would translate to the screen?
Thank heavens for Viola Davis, is all I can say, because the scenes in which her performance are placed front and centre were the only parts of the film that really affected me in any way. Out of all of the Academy awards that the film has been nominated for, her Best Supporting Actress nod is the most worthy. Of course it’s completely unsurprising that Fences has received any nominations, because it’s the epitome of an ‘Oscar-y’ film. If we needed more proof that the Academy picks its nominees based on a predetermined list of subject matter rather than the films being, y’know, exceptionally good, then here it is.
Fences was not great, but it wasn’t outright terrible. It was kind of worse than being outright terrible, though, because it was boring. Which means I can’t even write an enjoyable rant about it (although I have tried my best to do so, for the good of mankind, and in order to squeeze a modicum of fun out of the situation). I’d imagine it would be a good film for actors to watch and study, because based on the acting alone, it is high-grade. But there has to be some justification for it taking place on camera rather than just on a stage, and unfortunately, I couldn’t find it.
Film Review by Jade O’Halloran.
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