Actress Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut at Sundance with “Passing”, a movie based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. Set predominantly in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, “Passing” is an elegant and poignant period drama about biracial identity in 1920’s. Hall, who comes from a biracial family, touches on several other more opaque themes. But the film works best as a story of friendship – one marred by jealousy, obsession, and betrayal.
Noticeable right from the start, Hall’s debut employs stunning black-and-white cinematography. It’s not used as a gimmick or a nostalgic choice. The monochrome images have an intriguing symbiosis with the narrative and is thematically in-tune with the type of story being told. Hall also presents her film in a 4:3 aspect ratio that is both beautiful and evocative while feeding the film’s themes of confinement and boundaries. Some scenes utilize the format to relay the idea of being trapped within the life you’ve created. DP Eduard Grau’s images are a huge strength and practically every visual choice was made with meaning in mind.
The film’s title comes sharply into focus during the opening scene. Irene (Tessa Thompson), a biracial woman, walks into a shop with a hat tight on her head and covering a portion of her face. It’s a shop where she would normally be denied entry simple due to her ethnicity. But by ‘passing’ as a white woman she’s able to make her purchase and get out unnoticed. Immediately the theme of suppressing you racial identity is vividly laid out.
Afterwards a parched Irene stops for a drink at a Manhattan hotel. As she nervously waits for the waiter she’s surprised to see Clare (Ruth Negga), an old friend who she hasn’t spoken to in years. Clare is also biracial but has scrubbed out any hint of her true ethnicity. Now she’s ‘happily’ married to a wealthy and garishly racist white man named John (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no idea she is black. So as Irene ‘passes’ just to enter stores or to get a drink, Clare does it for the lavish white-only high society lifestyle.
As the two old friends reconnect they begin reevaluating their lives. Clare’s secret visits to Harlem makes her realize how much she misses her people and her culture. Her free-spirited boundary-less personality quickly makes her a hit in the neighborhood and in Irene’s home. Clare relishes the attention. Irene has done everything by the book. She’s married to a hard-working man named Brian (a terrific André Holland). They have two bright children and a nice Harlem home. But for Irene, seeing Clare’s independence and self-assurance highlights her growing feelings of dissatisfaction.
From there the relationships fester with more complex emotions. Hall handles them all with a surprisingly nuanced approach. She doesn’t spell out how her characters feel from scene to scene, instead trusting her performers to convey to us what we need. Yet despite their great work, the emotions can be murky at times. For example Hall tries to wedge in a muddled sexual tension between Irene and Clare, but outside of a few arbitrary gazes there’s nothing there. These moments feel weirdly out-of-tune but it’s not because of the performances. Both Thompson and Negga dazzle, bringing depth and light to their characters. Thompson is more subdued and internal, her character slowly pulled under by a range of suppressed emotions. Negga infuses Clare with her own unique energy and verve despite being seen solely from Irene’s point-of-view. And both actresses give us plenty to ponder and piece together on our own.
“Passing” is an alluring work with great period detail, a delicate attention to character, and an invigorating trust in its audience. As Devante Hines’ delightful piano chords transition us from one scene to the next, Rebecca Hall uses her story to poke at various weighty issues and social constructs. But at it’s core “Passing” is an intimate look at a complicated friendship energized by two absorbing performances. It’s a slow-moving story, even meandering a bit in the middle, but it really comes together in a powerful way, coated in ambiguity and with a final punch that feels inevitable and earned.
VERDICT – 4 STARS