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Fences Review – Bombastic Blue-collar Drama
Feb 17, 2017

This dense, declamatory drama about race and domestic tensions in a blue-collar African American family in 1950s Pittsburgh has more than a little in common with John Wells’s 2013 melodrama August: Osage County. Both received Oscar nominations. Both are so firmly rooted in their stage origins that any concession to cinema seems almost like an afterthought. And both are dominated by the kind of huge, air-sucking indulgence of a performance that is so unavoidable, so bombastic that people mistake it for quality.

Like Meryl Streep in Osage County, Denzel Washington is exhausting in the central role, playing garrulous sanitation worker Troy. It’s a role that requires him to spew out an almost continual torrent of mannered dialogue, which might work on stage but reeks of artifice in the cinema. It’s only in the rare moments of silence that he comes close to connecting with a character rather than wielding a performance. Opposite him, the always excellent Viola Davis delivers a raw but dignified turn as Troy’s wife, Rose, going some way towards anchoring the excess of Washington’s showboating.

There are problems elsewhere. The symbolism is heavy handed. It’s like being repeatedly clobbered by Troy’s prized baseball bat: Rose takes a phone call that delivers bad news; a lightning flash illuminates the crucifix on her wall. And the camerawork lacks assurance. It drifts self-consciously, sidling around the scene like someone trying to sneak out of a theatre without being spotted.