Passing is the feature-length directorial debut from acclaimed actress Rebecca Hall. She is best known for her astounding performances in Vicky Christina Barcelona, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and Christine; as well as her appearances in blockbusters like The Prestige and Iron Man 3. Her interest in adapting the source material of the same name does leave one pondering.
But it is worth knowing that the film has been in a long development process (spanning almost fifteen years) and Hall has a personal connection to the main theme in the film, which is about biracial identity. The novel by Nella Larsen is renowned for its powerful exploration of racism, identity and repression, and is still powerfully felt to this day.
Set in 1920’s Harlem, New York City, Tessa Thompson stars as Irene Redfield, a biracial woman who is married to Brian (a great Andre Holland), a doctor. The couple have two sons Theodore and Brian Jr. and they all try to live a content life, during the tumultuous time of racism and discrimination. While having afternoon tea at the Drayton Hotel, she has a chance encounter with an old friend, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), who is also biracial.
The two catch up smoothly, ever since childhood; but entered into a long estrangement, due to the death of Clare’s father. During their get-together, Irene discovers that Clare has been “passing” off as white and has been living in Europe with her wealthy white racist husband John (a surprisingly calm portrayal by Alexander Skarsgard) and daughter; with the former knowing nothing about her racial background.
It is under that impression that Irene decides to stop seeing Clare and focus more on her family. But it does not look easy for Irene to do so due to receiving letters from Clare as well as serendipitous meetings planned by friends.
The title of the film has many interpretations that can apply to the storytelling. The passing can refer to the issue of identity (Clare passing off as white); it can refer to the act of forgetting or avoiding something (Irene passing through the time and/or passing by spending time with Clare); it can refer to the death of a loved one (those who have passed on) and it can refer to an action that can be seen as romantic (to make a pass at someone). All of these moments happen and they bring credibility to the numerous themes of the film.
But it is credit to Hall (whom is also solely credited for the screenplay) that she manages to pull it all off in a subtle manner that is never didactic – not once do the characters speak on their conflicts explicitly. Nor is it emotionally inert as there is always a sense of progression within its character arcs and storytelling that compensates the lack of escalating plot.
Credit also must go to the crew who bring Hall’s vision to life. The use of black and white photography (lensed by cinematographer Eduard Grau) is not used as a gimmick nor for simple visual splendour but as a way to lend power to the themes of binary conflicts and outcomes. It becomes even more effective as the film progresses, as it starts to veer towards monochrome, reflecting the grey area that there are no simple answers or reasoning behind the actions the characters go through.
Alongside the immersive sound design (the street traffic sounds make the film feel lived-in, as if the audience is actually there) and the jaunty musical score by Devonte Hynes, it also adds an ethereal feel in that the characters are living their lives through denial or ignorance eg. When Irene and Brian argue over their children learning about racism after their child got called a racial slur, Irene wants her children to live through a time of happiness while Brian wants them to face the facts early in their young age.
The cast also carry their weight and beyond in making the drama felt. Thompson and Negga bring life to their characters, making their chemistry feel immediate in its rapport and understated in its implied awkwardness due to their prior estrangement. Thompson is believably introverted when outside her comfort zone, while Negga is alluring in her outgoing façade and compellingly distraught when facing the big picture in front of her.
The contrast between Irene and Clare brings a conflict that carries the film and it is not clear as to what it is. Unlike in the novel, Hall adds certain details (which will not be spoiled) that can hint to various ways; something veering towards jealousy (while touching on social class differences as Clare is wealthy while Irene is middle-class or racial differences as Clare passes off as white while Irene does not) or something deeper and more intimate.
The film can be a bit too understated at times; especially for audiences that are plot-oriented. The pacing could also use some work since the conflicts that are established in the second act proceed slowly and the resolutions in the third act may come across as swift in comparison. It is understandable that the editing (by Sabine Hoffman) was done the way it is to make the film feel illusive but more tightening up the second act and letting the third act breathe more would have improved the film, making the shocking climax more powerful.
Overall, Passing is a lingering and elegant directorial debut from writer/director Rebecca Hall about the struggles of identity (on race, gender and something more unrequited) that takes the nuanced (yet never emotionally inert) route of storytelling and is all the better for it. Great effort.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Passing is screening as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is being presented virtually between January 28th and February 3rd, 2021. For more information head to the official Sundance page.