Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy and Ashley Ware
Passing follows the unexpected reunion of two high school friends, whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities.
In 1920s New York City, a Black woman finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend who’s passing as white.
Passing is the film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, which is adapted and directed by Rebecca Hall who makes her directorial debut. The film focuses on two black women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who can ‘pass’ as white but choose to live on opposite sides of the colour line during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in late 1920’s New York. After a chance encounter reunites the former childhood friends one summer afternoon, Irene reluctantly allows Clare into her home, where she ingratiates herself to Irene’s husband and family, and soon her larger social circle as well. As their lives become more deeply intertwined, Irene finds her once-steady existence upended by Clare.
When watching Passing, the first thing that instantly pops is the cinematography by Eduard Grau. The film is framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio and shot in black and white, and considering it’s Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, it is an artistically well crafted feature, primarily focusing on close-ups during moments of silence, having the audience question what that person on screen is thinking in that moment. The costume designs by Marci Rodgers capture the period well and some of the set designs by Paige Mitchell particularly stand out in the film, especially in the sequence at the dance, and the score from Devonté Hynes is beautiful to listen to. Whilst the film works on a technical level, the story itself kind of faltered for me after the halfway mark as it begins to lose its energy. I’m not too sure if it’s a faithful adaptation to the book, but we’re primarily watching the film through Irene’s point of view, so when we see her catching her husband Brian and Clare murmuring to each other and pause when she comes down the stairs, you immediately feel as paranoid as she does about how ‘close’ the two are developing a friendship, but when the credits role and with the questions that were raised during the film, I didn’t feel like I was left with a satisfying conclusion, particularly with the ending.
In saying that however, there’s no denying that Passing is a well acted film. Tessa Thompson gives a great performance as Irene, someone who appears content with everything until her chance encounter with Clare and John awakes some things from the past, and how reluctant she becomes during the course of the film on matters of race, particularly in how her children learn about it. Ruth Negga portrays a complex figure in Clare, who is passing and married to a racist, but it’s the way that she looks at Irene, trying to read ‘Renie’s’ reactions in certain moments to figure out how she really feels. As Irene becomes more restrained as the film progresses, Clare becomes more care free, despite the dangers of her being caught out and the repercussions she would face from John. He might have a limited amount of screen time in the film, but just like Ana de Armas did in No Time To Die, Alexander Skarsgård makes a memorable impression as Clare’s husband John Bellew, a man so racist you can see how proudly he flaunts his opinion to strangers with a shit-eating grin, and as for the origins behind the nickname he has for Clare causes a brief moment of disbelief. André Holland gives a good performance as Irene’s husband Brian, who initially is apprehensive of having Clare being brought into their lives but even he is won over by her charm. Bill Camp also has a supporting role and gives a good performance as Hugh Wentworth, a white author who has some rather interesting conversations with Irene.
Rebecca Hall’s made a solid directorial debut with Passing, with some lovely cinematography, good set and costume designs, with great lead performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, but the story and the films conclusion left me cold in the end.