Frustrated father foists failure on his’50s family
Fences (12A)

‘Good fences make good neighbours’, wrote Robert Frost. The present – heavily symbolic – film re-writes that epithet to read, ‘some people build fences to keep people out and other people build them to keep people in’. 

Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer pize-winning play of the same name, it deals with the efforts of a  working class father to raise his family in the 1950s. 

Denzel Washington – doubling as director – reprises his Broadway role of Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbage collector whose youthful dreams of being a major league baseball player were thwarted because he was black. The colour barrier was finally broken  in 1947. That was far too late for Troy. 

When his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) looks set to succeed on the sporting field where he failed – though at football instead of baseball – Troy doesn’t support him. He throws a spanner in the works by refusing to sign the paperwork that would get him into college. 

He’s still, as John Osborne might have put it, ‘looking back in anger’, still feeling resentful that glory eluded him when he was Cory’s age. 

His life since has been unfulfilled, his ambitions reduced to moving from the back of his garbage truck to the front. It’s a pale reflection of his former dreams of becoming a black Babe Ruth.

This is a strong family drama but Washington makes few enough efforts to disavow its theatrical origins. He sets most of it in Troy’s backyard, leaving it open to the charge of being little more than a play with the cameras turned on. And yet, in a strange way, such claustrophobia adds to its power.

Now that Washington – who says he’s going to make a staggering nine other films based on Wilson’s work – is getting on in years he’s starting to look more craggy. This helps his performance. But the real star turn is Viola Davis as Rose, his long-suffering wife. 

She even steals a scene from him that should be his, where he confesses to an extra-marital affair that resulted in a pregnancy. Watching the pair of them square up against one another calls up memories of Willy Loman and his wife from  Death of a Salesman.

All the big themes are here – dysfunction,  loss, catharsis – set off against a bleak sociological backdrop. Adepo is suitably intense as Cory. Russell Hornsby is more muted as Troy’s older son Lyons, a struggling jazz musician. 

Mykelti Williamson plays his trumpet-playing brother Gabriel who suffered brain damage in World War II and now believes he’s the Angel Gabriel, entreating the Almighty to admit him to the Pearly Gates. The cast is rounded off with Stephen Henderson. He’s more muted – but no less potent – as Troy’s work colleague Jim Bono. 

Some may find it all a bit ‘talky’ at two hours plus but the stirring performances of the main leads should help you overcome this potential stumbling block.

Very Good ****