Review by Amanda Gilmore for Mr. Will Wong
Irene (Tessa Thompson) is an upper-class 1920s woman who lives in Harlem with her husband, Brian (André Holland), and their two sons. One day, while out at the Grand Tearoom in New York City’s Drayton Hotel, she runs into an old high school acquaintance, Clare (Ruth Negga). She finds out that Clare has been passing as white. Her ability to pass is proven as Irene learns she’s married to a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) and have children of their own. However, when Clare decides to ignite a friendship with Irene, both their lives become threatened.
Nella Larsen’s ground-breaking Novella is brought eloquently to the screen by Rebecca Hall. She unpacks central themes of race, identity, community, repression and constructed realities all while making her Feature directorial debut a technical marvel. She shoots this quiet, Psychological Drama with the filmmaking aesthetics of the time in which the story is set. Passing is shot in Black and White, has a 4:3 Aspect Ratio, and the music mimics an era past.
Her decision to shoot in Black and White strips all colour out of this film about race. What’s left is a beautiful composition of gray frames that perfectly reflect the gray-areas of race the Film explores. Hall’s cinematographic decisions go further in her choice of Aspect Ratio. Not only does a 4:3 image create a nostalgic look of old Hollywood glamour, it also forces us to really look at the faces of the characters. This is an integral part of Passing because Thompson and Negga’s impactful performances become the focus, with scenes framed tightly around their faces. This aids in helping us see Irene and Clare’s hidden desires and restrained longing.
Furthermore, the Sound Design thrusts us into the inner turmoil these characters are facing. In addition to taking us back to 1929, the Film’s Costume Design by Marci Rodgers, help us visualize the stark contrasts between both women. Irene is constrained, she wears modest clothing and a hat that covers much of her face. While Clare is beguiling, she wears outfits that swing as she walks and a hat that’s lifted-up showing herself completely. This is compelling because Clare is the one who’s passing, yet Irene appears to be hiding.
These two characters were captivating and nuanced when Larsen wrote them in the ’20s. Thankfully, Hall has kept them richly complex, enabling Thompson and Negga to be mesmerizing in their roles. It’s rare, even today, for female friendships to be examined in Film with such intricacy. Yet, this is what’s at the heart of Passing. The two women are each missing something the other has. Passing analyzes how you can equally admire and envy a friend for something you are missing. This is a story about the duality of human beings, expressed articulately through its two leads.
Thompson gives an unbelievably expressive performance as the quiet Irene, and Negga is a magnetic presence as Clare. She shows the life Irene has conformed to and her desire to break-free of those boxes. This is where cunning Clare fills the voids in Irene. Clare longs finally to be with her community again. And this is where Irene fills the voids in Clare. Thompson and Negga have a strong, layered chemistry. The Film plays with the ambiguity of the feelings between these women. It appears that there’s something simmering beneath the surface of this friendship, but it isn’t quite known exactly what. Additionally, these Actors nail one of the most integral parts of telling a story that takes place in 1929, the diction and way of speaking. No detail is spared.
Passing is a quiet film that manages to say so much. It has a Psychological Thriller that becomes more apparent as time progresses. Hall crafts something that’s rich in technicality and highlighted by its superb performances. Its intricate Screenplay is brought to life by a Director who has a clear vision and knows how perfectly to execute it. A remarkable debut as Director by Hall.
Passing screens at Sundance:
Live Premiere: January 30 at 6 PM (EST)
On-Demand (available for 24 hours): February 1 at 10 AM (EST)