It’s unlikely there will be a more sumptuously gorgeous film at Sundance than Rebecca Hall’s ravishing debut, an adaptation of Nella Larsen‘s 1929 novel in which two childhood friends reunite in 1920s Harlem. Both can to some extent ‘pass‘ for white, although each resides on either side of the segregated colour line. Shot in a dreamy monochrome in the old 4:3 standard ratio, Passing is a progressive passion project in the guise of a seductive throwback, and a great showcase for its two stars, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga.
On one scaldingly hot Summer day in downtown New York, Harlem resident Irene (Thompson) surreptitiously takes refuge from the heat in a swanky hotel. If anyone was to examine her too closely she may be thrown out of this white space. She locks eyes across the room with a confident, glamorous woman done up like Clara Bow. She turns out to be Clare (Negga), a childhood friend who has assimilated herself wholly into white society. As the two reconnect, Irene becomes increasingly entranced by Clare’s ease in white society, even though the consequences of discovery by Clare’s horribly racist husband John (a gamely loathsome Alexander Skarsgård) are too awful to contemplate. Clare meanwhile begins to yearn for the stability of Irene’s life with doctor Brian (André Holland), and two sons.
Passing is a project of great personal importance to Hall, whose mother is biracial. While she’s reverential to the source novel, she hasn’t been slavishly so, streamlining here and there, and removing some epistolary framing. Her directorial touch is light, and deceptively lilting, placing a gossamer veil over the very real danger, the awful inevitability, and… okay, a little bit of melodrama. Even if her control on the story hadn’t been so assured, her direction of her two actors is. Their meeting in the hotel is a masterclass on all fronts. Perhaps the film never reaches that high bar again, but from there you’re hooked.
Thompson and Negga are superb. Both are flawed and complex characters, each adding considerable depth to the simple story. Negga’s Clare is brittle and pugnacious, her white armour beaten into near perfection by practice, courage, and very real terror. It’s easy to see why she would captivate the cautious Irene. Thompson’s gaze is often downcast as she dips her toe into white society, expecting to be scalded at any moment. As a member of the Negro Welfare League she’s visible in that community, but finds Clare and her life irresistible (and a fizzy undercurrent of desire is visible in both women), and her envy is expressed inwards, at her blameless husband and her darker-skinned maid Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins).
It’s true that on the surface, Passing primarily impresses visually, primarily through how versatile cinematographer Eduard Grau (Buried, A Single Man, Her) captures the beauty of its characters and the gossamer fragility of the respective worlds they inhabit. However, the impact of the film lingers with the eerie, seeping weight of a tragic fairy tale. What initially strikes one as slightly hermetic and boxed in by the constricted 4:3 ratio begins to feel like a modern, singular take on a fable; passionate, romantic, wonderful and doomed all at once; Ophelia, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Vicky Page. It’s a superbly assured debut from Rebecca Hall that is sure to reward repeated viewings.
Screened as part of Sundance Festival 2021