A common complaint directed at cinematic adaptations of plays is that they’re, well, not especially cinematic. The “filmed play” accusation suggests a single location filmed predominantly in medium shot, a description that ill suits Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s 1983 Pulitzer-Prize winning play. As director, Washington opts for fluid and expressive camerawork (occasionally undercut by less-than-fluid editing) that defies the “filmed play” criticism. When Fences gets caught up in the moment, swept up by the dramatics and its formidable – likely Oscar-winning – lead performances (especially Viola Davis), it sings like the best cinema.
Where Fences runs into trouble is its screenplay. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt the calibre of Wilson’s playwriting – rather, the way he’s adapted his own script for the silver screen. Devices that are necessary on stage – for example, important events occurring entirely “off screen” to be detailed in domestic dramatics after the fact – are incorporated wholesale into a medium that doesn’t need them. Why do we spend so long talking about how much Cory (Washington’s character’s son, played by Jovan Adepo) loves football rather than, say, seeing him playing it? Combined with an overly sentimental and bluntly symbolic conclusion, Fences falls short of excellence.