Sundance Review: Passing
Passing, the first feature written and directed by British actress Rebecca Hall, is a stylish and confident debut. Adapted from the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, the film follows two childhood friends who reunite as adults after a chance meeting in a New York City hotel tea room. Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) is a Black woman living in Harlem who is nevertheless light-skinned enough to “pass” as white, granting her access to retail establishments in the city where she would otherwise be unwelcome. During one of these visits, she is recognized by Claire Kendry (Ruth Negga), a long lost childhood friend who has been living as a white woman—not just at moments of convenience, but in everyday life. As the two women begin spending more time together, each grows jealous of the freedom the other has.
At first glance, Hall would seem to be an unconventional choice to take on this material. But as she has explained herself, her connection to this story is personal; research into her family history revealed that her mother and grandfather were of African-American descent and passed as white during their lifetimes. After encountering Larsen’s novel, Hall wrote a screenplay that sat untouched for over a decade before she finally stepped into the director's chair.
As a performer, Hall has an uncommonly thoughtful and perceptive screen presence, and those gifts translate smoothly to the other side of the camera. Shot in 4:3 Academy standard ratio in black-and-white, Passing is a restrained and observational drama. It’s a movie about listening and watching, where the tension lies just as much in furtive glances and repressed emotions as in the dialogue. Hall’s delicate touch elevates the humanity of her characters, and her willingness to sit with the film’s quieter moments forces the viewer to really pay attention to the emotional uncertainty lurking underneath the surface of social conventions.
Hall’s aesthetic choices are similarly confident. The black and white cinematography places the skin tones of the entire cast on a grayscale spectrum, further underlining the absurdity of the Black-white binary and the impossibility of creating firm racial dividing lines that don’t depend on drawing arbitrary distinctions. Likewise, the compressed aspect ratio helps ground the film in its 1920s time period and draws greater attention to the performers as the camera’s glance lingers on the actors’ faces.
And that’s a good thing, because the real heart of the film are the two performances at its core. Thompson plays Irene as a bundle of repressed emotions and conflicting desires. She’s always been an actress capable of conveying extraordinary depth, and Irene plays to all of her strengths as a performer, particularly when her smile and eyes are conveying two opposing beats at the same time. And as Claire, Negga is positively effervescent, bursting with charisma and showing a side that audiences may not expect—especially those who primarily know her from her Academy Award-nominated performance as the meek and unassuming protagonist of Loving. The chemistry between them is palpable; you believe that these women have a shared history and a real bond, but one that is complicated by their differing social strata, degree of risk-tolerance, and envy for each other. They are orbited by a trio of able supporting men: the wonderful André Holland as Irene’s exhausted doctor husband, Bill Camp as a droll white author playing tourist in Harlem’s social scene, and Alexander Skarsgård as Claire’s husband—an unrepentant racist ignorant of his wife’s true heritage.
To describe the plot in more detail would be to deprive you of Passing’s transfixing pleasures, so I'll leave it at that. But Hall’s adaptation of this remarkable novel is beautifully observed and elegantly realized, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.