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There’s a great deal of early promise to actor Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, an ambitious adaptation of Nella Larsen’s much-loved and much-studied 1929 novel Passing, the kind of passion project that would most traditionally be a film-maker’s sophomore effort (after something smaller and personal to prove one’s ability).
In crisp, handsome black and white and with a 4:3 aspect ratio (often used as a gimmick but here feeling both fitting and practical given a smaller budget), we meet Irene or Reenie (Tessa Thompson) somewhat uneasily making her way through a mostly white Manhattan neighbourhood in the 1920s. Finding herself parched or at least in need of some comforting luxury, she heads to the Drayton Hotel, where she bumps into vibrant old friend Clare (Ruth Negga).
The pair, both light-skinned mixed-race women, haven’t seen each other for years, and while Clare is thrilled at the surprise reunion, Irene is more cautious, an initial instinct soon validated when they have a chance to talk in private in Clare’s suite. Clare reveals that she’s been “passing” as a white woman, a decision that’s helped her climb a social ladder and secure a rich husband (an odious Alexander Skarsgård). There’s a delicate push and pull to their initial conversation, both polite and both trying to avoid judgment but when Clare’s husband enters and shows himself to be a vile racist, Irene is horrified and returns back to the safety of her townhouse in Harlem with her loving doctor husband Brian (a reliably charismatic André Holland) and two kids.
Clare soon finds a way back, desperate for friendship but also led by a curiosity about the life she turned her back on, a sense of energy she feels is now sorely missing from her drier new world, stuck with a husband who doesn’t just not like black people but “hates” them instead. The dynamic between the pair is dramatically limitless, an awkward, complex friendship between two women of colour both trying to survive at a time when their country is against them (Brian’s constant horrifying anecdotes of racial violence from the news are brushed away by Irene who needs no reminder of the danger her family faces) in vastly different ways. There’s a seductive comfortability to Clare that Irene envies, the ease with which she’s able to acclimatise, none of the visible second-guessing that Irene experiences, the life and soul of whatever party she’s at, exuding a natural charm but also something rather dangerous too.
Yet as compelling and as complicated as this fraught friendship might be, Hall’s script can’t quite find a way to take it – and the other pieces of Larsen’s novel – and turn them into something deservedly substantial. Hall’s connection to the material is a personal one (her mother is biracial and many generations have “passed” for white) yet there’s a passion missing here, a fire that starts off blazing but fizzles as the story progresses. The slow pace and spareness of the deft first act is delicate and allows moments and characters to breathe but it soon turns into tedium as the script settles into a slightly repetitious nature, a plod that means the moments that do work (usually involving a new slight development in Clare and Irene’s obsession with each other’s identity, always a fraction away from Hitchcockian thriller territory) are lost in the mass that don’t (earlier subtlety giving way to clunky on-the-nose dialogue). There’s an initial quietness to the film that’s full of so much – the things that are thought but can’t be said – but it soon evaporates into emptiness instead.
Thompson, who was so luminous at last year’s Sundance in Eugene Ashe’s wonderful 60s romance Sylvie’s Love, gives a valiant effort here but she’s malnourished by Hall’s limited script which lumps her with too many scenes of looking concerned in a small handful of locations and not enough else. Negga, on the other hand, is allowed to steal scenes as the more gregarious of the pair and she’s deviously good at it, a true star turn from an actor who has deserved to be in so many more things since her Oscar-nominated turn in Loving.
It remains visually elegant throughout, with Hall’s decision to shoot in black and white allowing for some gloriously well-lit one-off shots courtesy of A Single Man cinematographer Eduard Grau. But the choice to repeat the same piece of music throughout starts to tire, and as we reach the final act, Hall skips over some important emotional beats (He did? She what? How come? etc) which leaves the tragic finale not feeling quite tragic enough.
There are so many weighty and often unasked questions in Passing about race and identity – questions that can never be easily answered, if at all, and Hall deserves credit for daring to cover such ground. But the fascinating nature of these issues should have left us with something more to hold on to, more to feel and more to think, a film as worthy of discussion as the knotty questions it brings up.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Passing review – Rebecca Hall’s elegant but inert directorial debut | Sundance 2021