FENCES. Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Directed by Denzel Washington. Rated PG (Mild themes, sexual references and coarse language). 139 min.

This American drama is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name written by August Wilson in 1983. It tells the story of a family trying to survive among the tensions of racial discrimination, personal infidelity, and major conflict between father and son.

The "Fences" symbolised in the title of the film are the emotional barriers built by an African-American working class father around his wife, his son, and those around him. They also symbolise the efforts to "protect" what is important when family life and welfare come under threat. The film was voted as one of the best ten films of 2016 by the American Film Institute, and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise the award-winning roles they took in the 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson's play.

This is a film about a close-knit family, and the community that surrounds it. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is an illiterate sanitation worker living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, and his restrictive personality prevents him from giving and receiving love and affection spontaneously. He bullies his son, and his wife of 18 years, and nearly always communicates a sense of his own importance.

Troy has dreamed in the past of being a professional baseball player, but failed in his attempt. Bitter about the lost opportunity that he attributes to racial discrimination, he actively prevents his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), being recognised for his football prowess. His long-suffering wife, Rose (Viola Davis), aware of his faults, and his constant belittling of her, as well as the rift between her husband and her son, has asked Troy to build a fence around their house. Troy insists that his son should help him construct the fence as punishment for not helping him around the house; Cory has been going (instead) to football practice. Cory's talent is never realised, and the fences being built represent Rose's hope and sacrifice, but also Troy's and Cory's personal failings.

The powerhouse performances in this film are delivered by its two lead characters, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. They give an intimate, complex and subtle portrayal of a couple who love each other, but are torn apart by what has happened. When Rose finds out that Troy has been unfaithful to her, her agony is achingly acute.

The film's script stays close to Wilson's play, and Washington directs the film to convey the intimacy of the characters' suffering, but also the effect on family social structure meant to absorb their stress. Much of the photography takes place in and around Troy's living room and garden at home, and roams very little outside.The film is full of inwardly-probing drama about how easy it is for a family to fail its own, and how hard it is do the right thing. Troy says he does "the best I can do", but responsibility and duty, as he perceives them, constantly feed his domineering personality.

The flow of language in the film is wonderful. Wilson's words ring out with great authenticity, and Davis and Washington empower them. Troy frequently challenges death and judgement, asking them to come to him, and at last they do. Just before Troy's funeral, Rose pleads that she and Cory need to remember Troy for what he was, and forgive him for any harm he might have caused. Her speech has powerful meaning for her personally, but also for the future of American society.

The film is dramatically moving, and expressively depicts the racial tensions that existed in the 1950s. The acting is uniformly excellent, including Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy's best friend. Essentially, however, the movie stays connected to the stage. "Fences" is a superb play, forcefully acted and directed for the cinema, and August Wilson's words still ring loud and clear.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Paramount Pictures

Released February 9th., 2017

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