Scenes from a marriage: Ryan Gilbey on Denzel Washington's Fences

Ryan Gilbey wishes Denzel Washington’s big-screen remake of Fences had a bit more room to breathe.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Denzel Washington is so formidable an actor and so mediocre a film-maker that when he stars in a movie that he also directed, as he does in Fences, it feels for the viewer rather like watching a man arm-wrestle himself into submission: there’s a lot of huffing and puffing and no one really wins. The film is not simply an adaptation by August Wilson of his 1983 play; it also transfers to the screen most of the cast of the acclaimed 2010 Broadway revival, including its Tony Award-winning stars – Washington, who plays the garbage man Troy Maxson, and Viola Davis as his devoted and ultimately slighted wife, Rose. They pace around their home in 1950s Pittsburgh like a pair of caged and increasingly sorrowful animals.

Troy coulda been a contender. He had all the makings of a baseball star but the race barrier prevented him from vaulting into the Major Leagues from the Negro ­divisions. Small wonder it smarts now that his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is shaping up to be a football sensation.

Troy does all he can to discourage the boy, disciplining him cruelly when he won’t take the hint, anything rather than let him plug away in a business that Troy insists doesn’t want him. That prognosis has been shaped by the racism he suffered. He has been conditioned not to get ideas above his station and now he is passing on those low expectations to his son. “The world’s changing and you can’t even see it,” Rose tells him.

Theirs is a largely genial marriage, full of teasing and tenderness, but every so often Troy’s frustrated self-loathing causes him to do something destructive – knocking over the pots and pans in a rage, or cheating on his wife. Rose greets these humiliations with varying degrees of concentrated disappointment. It is always a bitter-sweet thrill to see Davis suffering on screen. What she can convey with just the exquisitely desolate angle at which she holds a mixing bowl is nobody’s business.

This is before the film even gets to what can only be called That Speech, in which Rose explains to Troy the ways that he has failed her (“I took all my feelings, my wants and needs and dreams and I buried them ­inside you . . .”). It’s a devastating monologue and if Davis wins this year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (as she is expected to do), it will be because of her delivery in this scene alone.

Yet it is also a reminder that no one in the film can open their mouth without saying something revealing or portentous. Troy’s mentally disabled brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), sets the tone from the moment he plods down the street calling out: “Better get ready for the judgement!” From there, it’s only a matter of time before we get to the Line That Explains the Symbolic Significance of the Title (“Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in”).

There is a powerful drama here about the legacy of racism but Washington doesn’t know how to liberate it from the stage. It seems not to have occurred to him to create realism by using background performers or ambient noise; apart from the occasional chirping of birds, there is no life beyond the Maxsons’ yard. They spend much of the film arguing outside but their neighbours’ gardens are always deserted and no one so much as twitches a curtain.

Nor is film language used to complicate or undercut the effect of Wilson’s writing, apart from the nice moment when a marital spat is watched over by an ornamental plate bearing Christ’s face. Adaptations as diverse as Walter Salles’s On the Road and Mary Harron’s American Psycho have ­moderated macho bluster with cutaways to bored or unimpressed women, and that device would have worked wonders here.

The point-of-view in Fences could certainly use some shaking up. There are two other female characters besides Rose. One is a child and the other is not only never seen, but also dies before the film is over. And they say there are no good roles for women.

Washington, however, is too in thrall to the play – and to the memory of that cherished Broadway production – to see how it’s holding back the movie version. Like Troy, he needs to let go of the past. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine