"It's stagey" say so many of the critics, in regard to the long-awaited film adaptation of Fences, August Wilson's magnificent 1985 play about a former Negro Leagues player emotionally terrorising everyone around him. "It feels like you're just watching Denzel Washington and Viola Davis doing the play, just as they for 114 performances back in 2010". Oh, if only. A film that did absolutely nothing but let us sit in rapt awe as Washington and Davis swung through Wilson's grand dialogue and embittered characters in long wide shots would be, maybe not the best, but it would certainly be better than the Fences that was actually made with Washington as director (his third film in that capacity, the first in nine years).

It is, by and large, exactly the movie any reasonable person could possibly want it to be, with the dream cast of all dream casts, but it tries just a little too hard in the worst possible way to be "cinematic". In practice, this means that the editing, credited to Hughes Winborne but certainly encouraged by the way Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen set up their shots, carves the movie into a frenzy of barely-connected shots that merrily hop around the actors with no care towards the rhythm of the dialogue or the 180° line. The word "choppy" gets thrown around to describe editing a lot, usually without being defined terribly well, but this, this is what choppy editing looks like. Intense, high-impact moments are broken into three or four pieces, with the camera jabbing at poor Viola Davis like a horde of knife-wielding maniacs. It's astonishingly disruptive to a movie that, thanks to its theatrical inheritance, should really be focused as much as humanly possible on the continuity of moments, both for the real-time effect of the narrative, and for the pleasure of seeing great actors tear through minutes and minutes of great material without a safety net.

That aside, Fences is a completely solid, and in no way aesthetically inspired, translation of incredibly strong source material into movie form. The adapted script is credited to Wilson, who prepared a draft prior to his 2005 death, and it's an open secret that Tony Kushner took a swipe at it. But I'm damned if I can tell what of substance changed other than re-positioning some scenes inside of a house rather than in its backyard, or in the most dramatic shift of all, moving the action to the front porch. What remains is one of the great American plays of the last 50 years, one of my favorite entries in Wilson's ten-part cycle exploring the African-American experience of the 20th Century with once-every-decade dramas set in Pittsburgh. Fences is the one set in the 1950s, which means that the Civil Rights Movement is just starting to make its presence felt on a national level, and it is just possible to start to see some sliver of hope that a more equal society is coming. That's not terribly exciting to 53-year-old garbageman Troy Maxson (Washington), who was one of the greats during his time playing baseball, but who peaked years too early to take advantage when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. His general attitude since then seems to be that if he couldn't succeed, than nobody else had damn well better succeed either, and from this bitterness stems his antagonistic relationship to his 17-year-old son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), a high school football player being scouted by colleges. He has even less patience for his much older son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who he insultingly regards as a shiftless freeloader. This general hatred of himself and his family life extends, perhaps most bleakly of all, to his wife Rose (Davis), who remains mostly silent in the face of Troy's non-stop pontificating, but it is clear that her silence is the result of many long years of joylessness and regret.

This is American Naturalist Theater 101 in a lot of ways, just scooping up a collection of characters at right angles to one another - the remainder of the cast consists of Troy's co-worker and best friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who also acts somewhat as his conscience, and Troy's brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), badly out of touch with reality after receiving a head wound in the war, with his government payout serving as the seed money for Troy's house - and watching them collide when placed into a tight physical space with all of their mutual acrimony wound up. The key thing about Fences is that it's a very near perfect incarnation of that aesthetic, marred only by an epilogue that weirdly ends up leaving the film less whole & resolved than it would have been without it. The way that social change keeps dancing around the edges of the drama without ever asserting itself as the main point of the drama ends up feeling vastly more true to life and more politically astute than more naked social commentary ever could have.

And of course the characters are superb: Wilson's gift for sketching out years of shared backstory from just the words people use to address each other is the foundation for a multi-part character study of the highest order. Troy is a magnificent theatrical figure, prone to launching into endless monologues driven by passion rather than a sense of what point he's trying to make or where he'll end up, full of nastiness and rage that make him impossible to like, but so completely fleshed out in his motivations and the damage that has been done to him that we can't simply write him off. Washington is beyond-great in the role, which I'd be pretty willing to call his best-ever screen performance - he obviously knows the material inside and out, yet his acting is full of a constant sense of discovery, like even he doesn't quite know what mad depths Troy is going to plunge into next, with every line delivery feeling like a combination of improv and divinely-inspired prophecy. He makes us believe in Troy without playing for our sympathy or even, necessarily, our understanding. It's a piece of theatrical acting toned down just right for the movie screen, and worthy of every accolade that's apt to come his way. There's not a single wrong turn in the cast at all, of course - for the obvious reasons, including the second-largest part and the second-biggest movie career, Davis stands out, in a role that is mostly bottled-up reaction after bottled up reaction, letting nothing but her increasingly stormy expressions clue us in to what's going on, right up until she finally starts to lash out with her own vibrant reams of prose, but after Washington, I don't know that I'd even have it in me to rank the performances. Henderson, a stage actor for the most part, exudes friendly warmth but you can see in the set of his jaw and his eyes where the hard steel lies beneath that warmth, and Adepo is a proper triumph in his first major film role, taking the stock material of the script's most clichéd role (sullen teen who silently hates his dad and chafes at parental authority) and turns it into the most raw expression of bare emotion in a film where baring emotion is the whole damn point.

Of course, we can always long for a better film version of Fences; one that has any visual aesthetic to speak of that actually pulls out the material rather than simply recording it, for starters. But capturing this set of performances is absolutely enough to justify the fact that this is the version we've got. The material lacks the emotional presence of live theater, of course, and it's a play calculated to take full advantage of that presence, but if Fences was doomed to be made into an awards-season prestige picture, I really can't imagine how it could have turned out more satisfying than this.