Denzel Washington (director)
139 mins (length)
10 February 2017 (released)
10 February 2017
Viola Davis can make even the sorriest material watchable (Suicide Squad springs to mind), so it should surprise precisely no-one that when she's got some classic August Wilson to work with she knocks it high over the bleachers and clean out the park. She's so good, in fact, that co-star Denzel Washington (who also directs and is, just to be clear, excellent) can barely keep up, even with Wilson's spellbinding prose to chew on.
Just as she did on Broadway, Davis - a sure thing to land an overdue Oscar - plays Rose Lee Maxson, a devoted wife and mother who's spent 18 long but largely happy years by the side of Washington's Troy. It seems, at least to begin with, like a pretty solid investment, as when we first meet her other half he seems to have got the world and its ways all figured out.
In a sprawling and completely irresistible opening monologue Troy lays out his life story like a Greek epic. It's Friday, it’s payday and that, as it quite clearly has many a time before, means swigging from a pint of gin and holding court while Rose and best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson - and no, not that Bono) settle in for the show.
By the time he's through he's distilled precisely what it is that maketh a man, raged against the prejudice and institutional racism that persists in 50s America, and even cursed out the biggest names in baseball. His dream of going pro was snuffed out years ago, but he isn't shy about dismissing the sport's current stars and even the greats as nothings and nobodies not fit to lace up his cleats.
Still, as impressive as Washington is, when he's in full flow you're aware that you're watching a transplanted play. The same is true for much of the film's first half, and it's not until a painful, midpoint revelation that a well-acted but stagy and somewhat incidental family drama suddenly grips like it really needs to.
Why? Because Davis gets the chance to truly make her mark, and whenever she's on screen any nagging sense that you're dealing with a dramatic construct completely disappears. She isn't a character; she's a real, flesh-and-blood human being who, when the occasion calls, unleashes a wellspring of righteous anger and pain that will stay with you for a very, very long time.