Denzel Washington and Viola Davis create a mesmerizing symphony of emotion, finding both love and tragedy in every look and line of this poetic adaptation. Rated 4 stars out of 4.

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“Fences” wraps you and whirls you in a heady cyclone of words, ultimately dropping you gently on the ground, moved and changed and unexpectedly uplifted by the journey. It’s 1957 Pittsburgh, with steam rising from factory smokestacks, and middle-aged garbageman Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is headed home Friday after his shift, with his longtime friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). The two have a practiced rhythm: Troy spins yarns (“You got more stories than the devil got sinners,” notes Bono) and airs grievances; Bono nods, chuckles, advises, supports.

More characters emerge, in the film’s opening scenes, and a family takes shape: Rose (Viola Davis), Troy’s loving but weary wife; Cory (Jovan Adepo), their teenage son; Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s grown son from an earlier marriage; and Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s troubled brother, shellshocked since the war.

Movie Review ★★★★  

‘Fences,’ with Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney. Directed by Washington, from a screenplay by August Wilson adapted from his play. 139 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references. Opens Sunday, Dec. 25, at several theaters.

Adapted by August Wilson from his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play and smoothly directed by Washington, “Fences” emerges as a celebration of language made poetry — and of utterly electric acting. Most of the cast previously performed their roles in an acclaimed 2010 Broadway revival of the play, but there’s no hint here of staleness. It’s as if they, as well as we, are hearing the words for the first time.

Washington’s Troy, whose constant torrent of dialogue shields a fear of confronting the man he has become, is gradually revealed to us: on his own since leaving an abusive father at 14 (“Right there the world suddenly got big. And it was a long time before I could cut it down to where I could handle it.”), he’s found a refuge in Rose’s stability. A former Negro leagues ballplayer, he can’t stop picturing a life that might have been, though Rose points out that he was too old for a Major League career. His bitterness seeps out toward his younger son, in a devastating scene (“Who the hell say I got to like you?”); toward Rose in his infidelity; toward the world, inspiring the title’s metaphor — “I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me” — in the hope that Death will stay on the other side.

Though every performance is splendid, it’s Washington and Davis who create a mesmerizing symphony of emotion, finding both love and tragedy in every look, every line. Watch them, eyes blazing, in a central scene in which Rose confronts Troy. “I took all my feelings and wants and needs and I buried them inside you,” she says, a lifetime of resignation wrapped in her voice, searing pain in her eyes. You can almost see the charged air between them; it’s like being in the front row at a performance for the ages. How lucky we are that a camera has captured these words and these moments, for always.