The directorial debut of Rebecca Hall, Passing is an intoxicating, dreamlike adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novella of the same name. A deeply personal endeavour for the first-time writer-filmmaker, this tale of race, gender and social mobility in late 1920s New York is told with poise and a softly-spoken fervour.
Stunning monochrome photography, striking visual metaphors and exquisite framing that magnifies the piercing themes of Larsen’s story and Hall’s script melt into the sensation of being lulled into a kind of stupor. And it is a swelteringly hot day when a chance meeting reunites Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) at The Drayton Hotel. Visiting New York from Chicago, her vile husband, John (an adequately loathsome Alexander Skarsgård), in the city on business, Clare chances upon Irene, or ‘Reenie’ as she had previously known her, taking tea.
“I think I know you,” says Clare, Negga’s beautiful dark eyes having defiantly, inquisitively broken the fourth wall a moment earlier. Her fixed gaze contemplates her long-lost acquaintance, and us. For ‘knowing’ is as significant a notion in Hall’s film and loaded with as much meaning and potential consequence as its titular verb. Each woman is fair-skinned and mixed-race, and able to ‘pass’ as white but identity and self-truth are far more than skin deep here. Friends until their teenage years, they took separate paths forward.
Irene met and married hard-working, exasperated doctor, Brian (André Holland, ever charming) and lives in a Harlem townhouse; at just eighteen Clare married and climbed the social ladder and white society with John. The latter may be brash and confident in her public manner, but Irene peers out nervously from underneath the wide brim of her hat. “Does he…know?” she asks Clare. The ramifications of this question are stark, as John’s unabashed racism – and total ignorance of his wife’s race – is immediately apparent. But in a film that uses mirrors extensively to great effect throughout, to divide and distance characters, fracture their own sense of self, to enforce reflection literal and figurative, which woman is ultimately happier, prouder, most comfortable with the person that looks back at her?
Having turned her back on her upbringing, it is telling that upon an early visit to Irene’s home Clare sits with her back to a mirror whose surface is blurred. Her willingness to look over her shoulder, in order to confidently look forward, steadily grows, but there remains a loft left unsaid between Irene and Clare, and a lot that each woman is not willing to tell herself. At social events, charity balls, card games and tea mornings, much occurs between the lines of dialogue, conveyed through the uniformly strong performances.
A very fine actor in her own right, Hall’s direction of her small cast elicits Passing’s finest moments. Sincere praise should also go to Eduard Grau’s stellar cinematography which is another feather in the film’s stylish cap. Images may be confined to a squared 4:3 ratio, but though our view is restricted, what happens outside the frame is never far away. Irene seeks to hermetically seal her home, its domestic bliss, her family’s unity and keep her growing sons close by shutting out the real world. But when one of them is called “a dirty you know what” at school and news of a lynching in Little Rock interrupts bedtime stories, cracks begin to grow. An impressive, lingering debut from Hall, Passing exists as a fragile, precious, impossible reverie within a snow globe that could shatter at any moment.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63