Fences

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Fences is one of those films that makes you feel really intellectual and cultured for going to see, but also wondering whether you really enjoyed it.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by the same name, Fences is a character-driven drama about an African-American father and his family in 1950’s Pittsburgh.

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I didn’t know this film was based on a play before I went, and I kind of wish I had. Perhaps that’s just embarrassingly ignorant of me, especially since it says it’s based on a play in the trailer. But my expectations were for a different type of film. The drama, the depth of the relationships and the hard and raw emotions were all there as expected, but the treatment of the film totally blindsided me. It was obvious that it was based on a play. Only a few minutes into the first scene, the drawn out dialogue, single setting and over-emphasized motion were very clearly theatre based.

So I had a slightly disappointed moment of ‘uh, it’s a play.’ Followed by an overwhelming impression that I was watching master storytellers at work. As a viewer you are consciously aware that what you are watching is art. Troy Maxon (Denzel Washington), a sanitation worker, father and husband, is the cornerstone of this story. He is the patriarchal head of the family. As Troy charismatically leads, supports and raises his family, we are shown the joys and heartache of the events of his life. Washington shows theatrical mastery of this character, and had I actually been in the room watching him on a stage I would have been enthralled. But on film I struggled a little with the exaggerated way he moved around the set, and the physicality that was obviously designed for the stage.

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Denzel Washington is compelling to watch, but really it was Viola Davis who won me over. As Troy’s wife Rose, Davis showed that behind every man there really is a great woman. Her performance was convincing and I believed her struggle, pain and love. It’s clear to see why she was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for this role.

This film was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, so it’s difficult to justify an opinion in opposition to that. I can understand why the film stylistically felt so much like a play. It stayed true to its origin, and in doing so, gave us a fresh treatment on film. However I think they could have taken more creative license. By being just like a play, but on a screen, it lost some of the magic that you get by being in the room with the actors. It didn’t have that sense of closeness and of being on a knife-edge where anything could happen. There was no feeding off the adrenaline of the actors, and the film felt slow. It also didn’t seem to gain much from its new platform. It didn’t take on that different kind of closeness you get with film, the realness, where emotions and motives can be shown with just a flicker of an expression, because the acting was theatrical in style.

This film is one of the best of the best from this last year of cinema. It has award nominations coming out its ears. I can see why. It is a piece of art. But that doesn’t mean I liked it. I experienced appreciation with enjoyment this time around.

By Samantha Weston

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