I knew nothing about this film going into it, but it was immediately obvious to me just minutes in that it was an adaptation of a play.
All the elements of the film drawing from that original play (which I later learned is a famous and very well-regarded American play in its own right) are fantastic – the dialogue, the characters, the story, the performances. Washington and Viola Davis are at the top of their game; their performances are breathtaking.
The elements specific to the film itself, Denzel Washington’s third directorial outing, aren’t as successful. The “cinematic” breakaways, most notably in the midpoint, feel sort of clumsy, and are such a tonal break from the rest of the film that they’re distracting. The few montages pulled me out of the experience, where I’d previously been captivated by the dialogue and performances, and disengaged me from the film for a time. I normally am completely for adaptations making their mark as an original work with aspects specific to their unique mediums, but when the vast majority of a film is basically a play, the few parts that aren’t do really stick out.
It’s a powerful story told through very well-sketched characters, delivered by excellent actors doing excellent work. Perhaps “great cinema” isn’t the precisely correct term for this film, but it’s certainly great in any case. I give it three and a half planks of wood, and some nails.