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As well as a Pulitzer-prize for its original play, Fences has recently earned its weight in gold with four recent Oscar nominations and a win for Viola Davis. James Turnbull reviews.

As stage-to-screen adaptations go, Fences might not seem particularly “cinematic”. On the spectrum of spectacle ranging from the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the footage of a plastic bag from American Beauty, Fences belongs on the more ordinary end of the scale. But that’s no bad thing; too many adaptations of theatrical works betray their source material and bury its themes and complexities with showiness and trickery.

Look at 2012’s Les Misérables. The camera work threw subtlety out of the window and had audiences pressed up against the actors’ faces to absorb the power of each performance through osmosis. One can only assume the director felt he had no option but to squeeze the emotion out of every cast member like he was working with a bag of oranges. Suffice to say, it didn’t work.

Fences takes a different approach that feels more like a theatrical production that just so happens to have been filmed – and it works.

The finished product is uncompromising in its commitment to the characters onscreen and the actors who bring them to life in stunning fashion. You could write this off as a lack of directorial ambition on Denzel Washington’s part, but I see it more as a sign of respect – for the material and the audience.

The film opens as Troy Maxson (played by Denzel Washington, in the role that earned him a Tony Award in 2010) collects garbage in Pittsburgh with his friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).

It’s a far cry from what ought to have been his destiny; he was denied a shot at baseball stardom in his glory days by the colour barrier. He’s left mourning the life he feels he deserved, and his aspirations have shifted from hitting home runs to collecting “white people garbage” or getting the chance to drive the truck.

Consigned to a more humble existence, he treats his backyard (Fences rarely ventures beyond the confines of the Maxsons’ yard) as his own little stage, where he spins tall tales about fights “with Death himself” and sounds off about how he barely has “a pot to piss in” despite his hard work and talents. Wry looks from his wife Rose (Viola Davis, who puts in one of the year’s finest performances) help to rein in some of Troy’s wilder anecdotes.

As brilliant and charismatic as Washington is in the lead role, Viola Davis steals so many scenes with a single look that it’s almost frightening. Her physical reactions to the more dominant figures in the household tell as much of her story as her own monologues, where the quieter injustices stewing inside can be laid bare for all to see.

Davis, in an interview with Sight and Sound, cited how characters like Rose were part of a “very specific generation” – that is, a generation removed from slavery.

At least Troy can passionately lament the fate that has befallen him; Rose often watches from the kitchen like a peripheral figure in her own life. One particular narrative turn (that is best left unspoiled) forces the couple into an icy confrontation that explores the hypocrisy of the era in brilliantly uncomfortable fashion.

Troy’s relationship with his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is also of paramount importance in Fences. Though Cory yearns to play college football and at least take a shot at the sort of life that cruelly eluded his father, he’s held back by Troy to protect him from the disappointment that may ensue when following your dreams.

This brings up an interesting form of generational conflict – is it bitterness or compassion that drives Troy in controlling Cory’s life? It asks important questions about the emasculation of men whose lives were decided for them in the early 20th century, as well as their reactions to that. Can Troy really afford to take revenge on the injustices of his younger days by becoming those same injustices in his son’s life?

The beauty of Fences is being able to watch complex, damaged characters who reflect the injustices of their respective eras, but are equally given the opportunity to be more than mere social mouthpieces.

The combination of fascinating characters, layered performances and love for the source material makes Fences a film well worth experiencing.

What did you think of Fences? Let us and @JCTurnbull know on @EpigramFilm.

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