‘Passing’ Review (Sundance Review)

There’s an old-fashioned elegance to actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing. Based on the then-scandalous 1920s novella by Nella Larsen, Passing tackles a cornucopia of issues that still seem pertinent today: race, class, sexuality, and beyond. When I saw Passing all those months ago for the Sundance Film Festival, a great many truths, seemingly contradictory, leaped out at me from beyond the screen. While Hall’s script crackles with intelligence and wit, it also seemingly loses steam as it tries to tie all these themes together in a succinct narrative. And yet this barely matters, as Hall’s direction is so assured, and Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are so astonishing, the film manages to maintain its momentum from its warm start to its tragic conclusion.

Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Thompson) lives a comfortable existence in 1920s Harlem. She is married to successful doctor Brian (André Holland), has two beloved children, and is even mildly accepted in modern society, thanks to the color of her skin. Irene is of mixed race, and while she predominantly opts not to, she can, on occasion, operate in white circles by “passing” as white. One day, she is spotted by a mysterious young white woman. However, before fear can set in, Irene discovers that the woman is none other than her childhood friend Clare (Negga), a fellow mixed-race woman who has chosen to “pass” in every aspect of life – including in her marriage to the massively wealthy – and massively racist John Bellow (Alexander Skarsgård). As Irene and Clare reunite, the two begin to witness the imbalance in all aspects of their life, from race to gender to class…and maybe even sexuality.

What makes Passing such a fascinating watch is the way it so carefully uses its subject to explore a cornucopia of divides. Every character has a secret that forces them to jump between worlds. Irene and Claire both pass between worlds of black and white, they constantly hide their flowing sexualities – attraction between the leading couples ebbs and flows with each passing scene. And Irene constantly struggles with the realities of moving from poverty to the upper-middle class. Hall’s direction places us directly with the characters, studying them – and maybe even ourselves – as they deal with the psychological trauma of constantly having to change one’s identity.

Irene is fairly comfortable with her race, only using her ability to pass on rare occasions. However, it is her other divides that challenge her. The idea of hiring a maid feels like a betrayal to her people, and for this reason, would rather play-act as poor than engage in the activities of the rich. Similarly, a major portion of her arc involves her attempts to hide her confusing attraction to Claire, whom she often sees illuminated in sunlight and flaunting her own beauty.

Hall raises these questions not just through the screenplay and the excellent performances, but through her own direction. She continuously makes choices that force you to question the cinematography’s honesty, the reality of what we’re witnessing, and beyond. It makes sense that Hall is the one to tell this story – she herself is of mixed race, and has played roles involving “passing” on more than one occasion (several critics – myself included – were caught off-guard when researching the film for our reviews). Perhaps this knowledge and life experience play into the film’s psychological elements, the bulk of which involve the enigma that is Claire.

Claire has become so invested in passing – and built up such a complicated life on the premise – that you can’t help but wonder if she’s lost any sense of self-realization. She’s clever enough to remember to keep her dangerous secret – a secret so subtle that even a glimpse of her legs could give her away. But her endgame is so shrouded and guarded, she remains a mystery throughout. What is her goal, and why is she so obsessed with Irene? To feel Black again? To f*ck Brian? To f*ck Irene? To feel superior to her as a supposed white woman? These are all questions Hall and Negga raise together, and while I suspect the film leaves this open-ended because they don’t know the answer either, it still makes for a fascinating study.

Now, as interesting as these themes are, there are some doubts and issues within their presentation. Hall’s screenplay takes a languishing amount of time laying this all out. The film meanders along from scene to scene, and while it’s consistently intriguing and challenging, its pace almost becomes detrimental to the plot. While the themes and ideas at the center of Passing are dense, they aren’t exactly challenging to figure out. Because of this, any mildly attentive member of the audience soon finds themselves miles ahead of the characters and plot in terms of realization. And once you find yourself ahead of a plot, it becomes challenging to reinvest yourself – and perhaps run the risk of finding yourself in a sleepy daze when you should find yourself invested in the characters and their struggles. It’s never a good sign when halfway through the film, there’s an energetic, riveting party scene, and your only thought becomes, “Man, this seems out of place.”

Luckily, while the editing and writing may hinder the film’s pacing and plotting, Hall’s direction – and the team she assembled to do so – ensure the film never becomes boring. Hall is, without a doubt, a filmmaker through and through, maintaining top-tier production value for the duration of the film’s runtime. The vast duration of this review could be dedicated to praising Eduard Grau’s cinematography, shot in stunning black and white. Now, black-and-white has been a popular gimmick this year – I’ve seen approximately six films so far with at least 50% of the film in monochrome. But Passing’s usage is far from a gimmick. The stark color – and lack thereof – enhances the lighting and helps enhance the question and mystery involving the actresses’ race – the entire point of the film. Furthermore, thanks to its 4:3 aspect ratio, the film gains a documentary-esque stock footage appearance, alluding to the time period and elevating the choice beyond the average flashy directorial gimmick.

Hall stages her film with the same flair and elegance of a 1920s melodrama, and therefore Grau frames the production with the same gravitas of Von Stroheim’s Greed or Murnau’s Sunrise. This classical flair is heightened by Devonté Hynes’ light jazzy piano score. Hynes imbues the film with a romantic air whilst also reflecting the era. It lulls you into a false dream state, misleading in its simplicity and almost jarring in its calming nature. And enough cannot be said about the production design, both in terms of Nora Mendis and Paige Mitchell’s sets as well as Marci Rodgers’ costumes. Rodgers’ costume work in particular is worthy of note, as the costumes serve as a reflection of both Irene and Claire, of their personalities and their deceptions, and work with the light and the cinematography to emphasize the illusion and play into the story’s stakes. It is a well-crafted film, helmed by a well-honed director in Hall.

Of course, Passing predominantly works thanks to the performances by its leading ladies, Thompson and Negga. Both actresses possess a classical, sultry energy that most modern-day stars struggle to conjure, and they bring such depth and intelligence to their performances in each and every scene. Thompson manages to capture Irene’s twitchy, nervous sense of discomfort, unable to find any world or role she properly fits into. Surprisingly, however, the normally scene-stealing Thompson plays the straight woman in this case (so to speak), thanks to the towering achievement of Negga. From minute one, Negga is on another level, crafting a femme fatale of legendary proportions imbued with intelligence and humor and enigma and yes, sexiness. She walks a fine line between mystery and insanity, and whether or not her character is too inscrutably written to properly understand, Negga does whatever she can to bring this character to stunning and realistic life.

As for the men in the cast, there’s not a whole lot to say. That’s not because the actors are bad, by any means. On the contrary, all three are quite strong. They just aren’t giving performances outside of their normal wheelhouses. Skarsgård plays yet another monster of a man, whose most terrifying trait is his geniality. The simple and honest joy he gets while explaining his hatred of the “inferior race” is more terrifying than any over-the-top bigot in any clichéd movie about the South.

Meanwhile, Holland plays his role as a frustrated man quite well. He mostly exists to put up with and challenge his wife’s contradictions, dealing with her desire to be more active politically and socially while simultaneously fighting her desire to shield their children from the harsh realities Black people face. His character is striking in the way he may, in fact, be right in his reasoning, and yet his solutions are often thick-headedly awful. Oh, and the great Bill Camp shows up to steal the film, as he so often does, as a rich people-watcher whom Irene confides in, and who offers succinct commentary from his chair in the corner.

Passing is a striking first film of intelligence and depth. Hall has certainly proven herself as a fiery director of wit and vision, capable of running her crew and her actors with moderate success. Its issues with pacing remain minimal, fading as time has passed since my screening at Sundance. And who knows? Maybe the film’s mysteries will reveal themselves on a second viewing – after all, it has been reported that Hall has taken another pass at the material, tightening the story up with a few small cuts. Perhaps those small snips may be the difference between a letter grade or two. But even if nothing had changed, Passing would still be a showy debut by a rising director, and a stellar showcase for its two leads, no matter how dry its second act may be.

B

Passing is now streaming on Netflix

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