When adapting a stage play for the big screen, the accepted practise is “opening it out”, you know, putting in a car chase, or taking the characters for a long walk, a few nice shots of the sky.
Things have changed. We now see a lot of theatre in the cinema with events such as NT Live packing in audiences who might not be able to get to London or just can’t face a ghastly pre-theatre meal deal.
But when a movie makes a virtue of its stage roots, it can be refreshingly effective. Denzel Washington directs and stars in Fences, opposite Viola Davis (both of them are Oscar-nominated), practically making a filmed record of the Tony-winning performances from their 2010 Broadway production of August Wilson’s play.
Most of the action – ok, let’s call it “talking” – happens in the back yard of Troy and Rose Maxon’s house in a black neighbourhood of 50s Pittsburgh. Washington does give us glimpses of the city – the film opens with him and his pal Bono (Stephen Henderson, also from the Broadway production) bantering about a watermelon on the back of a garbage truck as they empty the city’s bins – and other rooms in the house, the front porch and up and down the street.
But when you have such fine actors delivering strong dialogue, the right decision is to let them get on with it, to let the words do their job. Playwright Wilson, who died in 2005, adapted the screenplay himself and is now posthumously Oscar-nominated.
One of my favourite stars, I could listen to Denzel read out the phone book, or even that pre-theatre menu, and be hooked. I don’t think I’ve seen him as engaged with a role as this for ages – he inhabits Troy’s every breath, every slump of the shoulders, sag of the belly, every flashing smile and swig of gin. He brings a music to the dialogue and the long monologues, which lends it a poetry while Troy reminisces about his lost baseball career or reveals a painful memory from his childhood.
It’s a big, showy performance, perhaps too big for a movie and indulged because he’s directing himself, but I liked it because of the film’s theatricality.
Viola Davis as Troy’s wife Rose is, as usual, a quiet powerhouse. When she gets her big moment, boy, she can let the waterworks flow like no other actress. She has a unique skill for marshalling a single tear carefully down a cheek and can even combine it with a gently running nose. I bet they don’t teach snot at the Actor’s Studio – this is all her own work.
Fences is an everyday story of black fatherhood and black lives but one that skilfully transcends its specifics to touch all humanity. And in Troy it has a central character, not likeable yet sometimes loveable, full of flaws and frustrations, whom we admire despite his often unadmirable behaviour.
It might not be the finest, flashiest bit of cinema you’ve ever seen, but it still feels like watching an American classic.