3.5 out of 5 stars

English actress Rebecca Hall, making her directorial debut, shines an elegant and assured light on what to many people will be a little-known aspect of black American history. Perhaps Passing isn’t everything it could be (lacking the punch its story seems to deserve), but superb performances compensate for some deficiencies in the writing and its rather passionless, unforthcoming style of filmmaking.

The setting is 1920s New York. We first meet Irene (Tessa Thompson), a black woman living in Harlem, as she shops in a white district, hiding under a wide-brimmed hat. She’s not quite trying to disguise herself as white, but she’s certainly not wanting to draw attention to her blackness either. Irene’s a respectable lady as the wife of a doctor, and in New York there’s nothing illegal about her shopping wherever she wants, but nevertheless the expectation is that blacks and whites stay apart.

This immediately gives Passing a direct resonance for our own time, that a film set in the pre-Civil Rights South might not have. The racism here isn’t violent (though it’s sometimes overt), but it’s still very real. What might come as more of a surprise to modern audiences is that when Irene unexpectedly encounters a friend from her childhood, Clare (Ruth Negga), the latter is “passing” for white—not just assimilated into white society, but actively pretending to be white. Her outspokenly racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) has noticed she’s getting darker every year, and jokingly calls her “Nig”, but has no inkling of the truth. Indeed, he’s sure he doesn’t know any black people (“I do know people who know them. And I read about them in the paper.”)

John appears again toward the end of the film, as the immediate cause of its tragic, ambiguous climactic event. The bulk of the movie, though, concentrates on Irene, Clare, and Irene’s husband Brian (André Holland). And over the coming months, with some jumps in narrative time which aren’t well signalled, Clare gradually insinuates herself back into Irene’s life—inviting herself to a party, making friends with the maid, and possibly (at least in Irene’s mind) drifting toward an affair with Brian.

At the same time, a gulf appears to be developing between Brian and Irene themselves: he’s hard-nosed and realistic about racism, while Irene is to some extent in denial, able through her life of relative privilege to insulate herself from it. They disagree, particularly, on whether to tell their sons about the hostility that much of the US still has toward black people, or (Irene’s preference) to sugarcoat it. “You are not to talk about the race problem, I won’t have it,” she says. “I don’t understand how someone as intelligent as you can be so stupid,” he replies.

Thompson and Negga are terrific. To a large extent they make the film what it is, with performances as complementary as their characters, both concealing powerful emotion beneath their politeness. In Irene’s case it seems to be a kind of irritation at people in general for not always behaving exactly as she’d like. There’s also, perhaps, envy of Clare. (Although in Hall’s movie, unlike Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, there’s little if any hint of a sexual attraction.)

Clare, for her part, is trying but usually failing to hide loneliness beneath a bright and flirtatious exterior. It may even be more than loneliness, a kind of greed for the company and acceptance of other people, which itself translates into envy of Irene. Passing seems for much of its duration to be taking Irene’s point of view, but as it progresses we gradually come to sympathise with the initially irritating Clare as well.

Indeed, much of its intriguing nature lies in the differences and similarities between the two women. Although Clare’s superficially the free and privileged one—“passing” for white—in practice she’s more constricted by her lie and her husband than Irene is. And the “passing” itself is more a confidence trick than a true transformation. Irene says “nobody could tell from looking at her” that Clare’s black, yet the great irony of the film is that (Clare’s dyed-blonde hair apart) there isn’t really much visual difference between the two women.

The supporting cast is impressive too, especially Holland as Irene’s husband, an interesting and perceptive enough character who could be the focus of a movie himself. “You’d think they’d be satisfied with being white,” says Irene. “Who’s satisfied being anything?” he retorts. Bill Camp also appears in a less crucial but memorable role as Hugh, a white writer friend of Irene who’s married but clearly gay and who has little time for Clare, describing her as “playing the victim.”

There’s much to fascinate in Passing, then, but while Hall absolutely gets the best from her cast, some of her directing and writing decisions do the movie few favours. It’s a slow movie, not only in the decorous pace of its narrative but also in the sense it reveals the two women and their concerns very gradually. For a long time both Irene and Claire seem little more than tokens of their respective situations, in much the same way as the characters in Julius Onah’s Luce (2019) are representatives of specific racial dilemmas rather than truly credible people.

This slow pace is exacerbated by dialogue that sometimes seems too wordy and literary, even for well-spoken ladies of the 1920s (“a kind of emotional excitement, something you feel in the presence of something strange and even, perhaps, a bit repugnant to you”), and at other times hammers its points home rather repetitively. Clare says “I want so much to be around Negroes again”, then tells Irene that “you have a true, good life and you’re free”, before even referring to “this pale life of mine”.

The stylish monochrome photography by Eduard Grau also contributes to a rather cold and detached feeling, even deadening the high drama at its climax. This needn’t be the case—neither Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) nor Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse (2019) felt distanced by their black-and-white aesthetic, for instance—and it is probably the combination of black-and-white with the formal, polite milieu in which the film takes place that gives the impression Passing is never quite opening up to us.

Still, even if the obvious opportunities for symbolism afforded by shooting this way can be overdone—the interior of a hotel is absurdly white, for example, and the final shot disappears into snow-white—Grau’s photography is often languorously gorgeous too, with effective use of soft focus and one notably beautiful, almost dance-like sequence with Irene on her own. Devonté Hynes, meanwhile, provides an exquisite though unshowy jazz score in a film, that despite its 1920s Harlem setting, has far less diegetic jazz than one would expect. Kudos there for not succumbing to cliché there.

Passing is original and ambitious; the work of a writer-director with a vision. If it doesn’t completely succeed, that’s because it’s too restrained for its own good, and at times seems more interested in the overall meaning of its story than in engaging us with the characters and scenes through which that meaning is conveyed. But it’s magnificently acted and, in many respects, finely crafted—strengths that certainly suggest Hall’s next movie is worth waiting for. And one that might even get more than a nominal theatrical release.

US • UK | 2021 | 98 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Rebecca Hall.
writer: Rebecca Hall (based on the novel by Nella Larsen).
starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp & Alexander Skarsgård.