PASSING (Sundance2021) – Review by Pamela Powell

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Rebecca Hall’s impassioned feature directorial debut, “Passing,” is based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. The story depicts two Black women who were once childhood friends, Clare (Ruth Negga) who ‘passes’ for white and Irene (Tessa Thompson) who’s troubled by her own ability to do so, who are unexpectedly reunited. Their chance encounter will change their lives forever as they are pushed to look at the world through a different lens.

We are introduced to Irene as she haltingly but confidently shops in a white area of New York City in the 1920’s. With her head down and her hat tilted to cover her hair and eyes, she is treated by others kindly. She pushes the boundaries and hails a cab, arriving at the Drayton Hotel only to be met by more kindness. The muffled sounds with clear focus on the hollow footsteps give us access to Irene’s mind. We, too, are overwhelmed by the possible consequences if she is identified as Black. Irene is aware of every one and every movement, like a cat ready to dart from a lurking dog at any moment. But across the room her eyes meet with a woman who may also be passing for white. Almost unrecognizable with her short blonde and well-coifed hair, the women turns out to be a long-lost friend from Harlem. Guardedly chatting, the women decide to continue the conversation in the privacy of Irene and John’s (Alexander Skarsgård) room at the hotel. It is upon his arrival that the truth of Clare’s charade is evident. Irene gracefully removes herself from what she considers to be a dangerously heinous situation.

Clare’s need to be back and a part of the Black community is evident by her constant letters to Irene, all of which go unanswered, but Clare is undeterred. Arriving on Irene’s doorstep, Clare ingratiates herself not only into Irene’s seemingly perfect home, but her entire life. As the days and weeks go by, Clare has become a mainstay in their lives, but there’s a never-ending tension present between the two women. We question if it’s sexual, jealousy, or pure disdain for Clare’s actions in pretending to be white.

The film, shot in black and white, shows us the many shades of grey within life. On the surface, both Clare and Irene appear to be happy and living comfortably. Peeling away the superficiality, we see the women for who they are; Clare who will go to any lengths to get what she wants and to hell with the consequences and Irene who struggles with her marriage and perhaps depression. Married to a doctor, Brian (André Holland), Clare pushes him away almost tempting fate with the vivaciousness of Clare. And like the film with its many shades, this love triangle has its shades as well.

Shot gorgeously in black and white and an aspect ratio reminiscent of days of old, we are taken back into a bygone era. The contrasts are striking as are the interactions and razor-sharp dialogue. And thanks to deft direction and skilled performances, much is said with just a simple expression. We see how troubled Irene is as the tension builds within her. Her eyes and her posture, fixed and rigid, reflect her internal struggles, but there’s a longing to be true to herself. Irene is beguiled by Clare, as are most who encounter this woman, but there’s also a sense of disgust for not being true to herself. Of course, the same could be said about Irene if she had the strength to truly look in the mirror.

Thompson’s restrained and nuanced performance is simply captivating. She gives this character an inner strength which is evident but her fears and unhappiness seeps through the cracking facade. Negga’s performance is equally as nuanced, but in a polar opposite direction. She gives Clare a certain sadness with moral complexities that are only allowed to rise to the surface occasionally. Together, Thompson and Negga eloquently depict two women on each end of the emotional spectrum who are in turmoil with their own identities.

Finding the right focal point and lens through which to tell the story is an arduous task, but Hall’s intuitive perspective gives us the depth this story requires. Her choice to film in black and white, using the square framing, and particular vantage points for shots, brings the viewer into the scene, both intellectually and emotionally. Her vision is obviously clear which likely articulately guided her cast. While both Negga and Thompson shine in this story, Skarsgård’s chillingly effectual role as a hateful racist is eviscerating. And Holland portrays Brian as the antithesis to John as he struggles with his love of life and his marital issues. The entire cast gives the story, the era, and the issues at hand a rich and layered feel. The pacing of the film lags slightly after an hour but with an unexpected ending that had me second-guessing what I truly saw, “Passing” creates a vividly complex story that is still relevant today.

3 1/2 Stars

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Pamela Powell

Pamela Powell, a New York native and graduate of Northwestern University, writes for The Daily Journal and co-hosts a movie segment on WCIA TV, a CBS affiliate. Residing near Chicago, she and her film partner also have a podcast, Reel Talk with Chuck and Pam.