Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star in this slow-paced but perceptive race drama from Rebecca Hall.
Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut exudes confidence. The styling, the enunciated dialogue, the restrained performances, the neo-classical architecture, the confidently languid pacing, Passing has an almost aristocratic air about it. This adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel tells the story of Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), pale-skinned Black women who knew each other in Chicago as children and reunite as adults in New York City, where they live on different sides of the racial divide.
Irene is happily married to a handsome Black doctor (André Holland), raising two sons in a palatial brownstone in Harlem. Clare has dyed her hair blonde and adopted a stilted accent to pass as white. She is married to a wealthy white man, John (Alexander Skarsgård), who openly “hates negroes” and affectionately teases Clare for her persistent tan. The women become increasingly infatuated with one another’s lives and entangled in each other’s identities.
Unsurprisingly for an actor-turned-director, the strength of Hall’s direction is in the performances she draws out of her cast. Thompson is wonderful as the increasingly paranoid and brittle Irene; she suits the fast-paced 1920s dialogue and slides effortlessly into Katharine Hepburn-esque witty lyricism. Holland is also given space to shine, playing a charming man weighed down by the ever-present threat of racial profiling and lynching.
But best of all is Negga, playing a very real, deeply conflicted person buried beneath layers of artifice. She conveys Clare’s humanity with the hard shell of an enigmatic Hitchcockian blonde. The film is also exceedingly beautiful, the black-and-white cinematography giving the actors a sculptural quality. Hall picks out light and shadow to make race feel all the more arbitrary, but she also heightens the radiance and drama of her subjects’ exquisite bone structure. This aesthetic extends beyond the cast as aerial shots of breathtaking composition are formed through geometric patterns of buildings, bodies, shadow and snow.
It is also to Hall’s credit that she is largely able to handle the complicated issues of race posed by this story: the unspoken pride and thrill of “passing”; the colourism present between Irene and her dark-skinned maid; the internalised racism of Black women and the gradual trauma of living each day fearing your children will be lynched. Hall herself comes from a lineage of pale-skinned “passing” Black people and her personal connection to the subject is evident.
The film has its flaws: the repetition of sets makes New York feel claustrophobically small, and at times it can feel repetitive and slow. But this restraint pays off in the sudden turns of the final act. Despite its imperfections, this is a beautifully crafted piece of filmmaking and one that heralds an exciting new direction for Hall. Here’s hoping she can bring this level of artistry to her future projects.
Published 31 Jan 2021
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