In her debut as a writer-director, Rebecca Hall chose to adapt Nella Larsen’s celebrated 1929 novel. Passing draws from Larsen’s personal experiences as a biracial woman and Hall (who is also biracial) presents a drama fraught with explorations of identity and the privileges that come with passing as white. Passing is layered with complexities and elevated by the performances of its lead actresses in what is an elegant, if somewhat static, film.
In 1920s New York, Irene “Rene” Redfield (Tessa Thompson) drops in on the Drayton Hotel to escape the summer heat when she finds a blonde woman staring at her for what is way too long to be considered comfortable. That mysterious woman is Clare Kendry Bellew (Ruth Negga), an old high school friend of Irene’s who moved from Harlem to Chicago and was back in town. Their exchanges quickly become tense when Clare reveals that she has been passing as white for years, having married a white man named John (Alexander Skarsgård) and given birth to a daughter who is also white passing.
Meanwhile, Irene lives a decent life with her doctor husband Brian (Andre Holland), but their life is more complicated because they’re Black, despite the fact that Irene can pass as white on occasion. As Clare re-enters Irene’s life and returns to her roots in Harlem, their tense relationship shifts as Irene becomes noticeably jealous of Clare and the space she’s carved out for herself, so easily slipping into her life as a Black woman and a white passing one.
Thompson is fantastic here, giving a nuanced performance as Irene, the meticulous observer who is seemingly content with her life in Harlem after witnessing the extent to which Clare has had to fold herself to pass as a white woman. But, as Clare settles further into Harlem society, Thompson’s body language shifts and her face changes to reveal the underlying jealousy, tension, and fear of how others might view her. There’s no doubt that Thompson brings her A-game to a multilayered period piece, playing Irene with incredibly controlled emotion.
Of course, there’s no one better to play opposite Thompson than Negga, whose rapturous eyes convey a great deal more than her words. Negga’s portrayal of Clare is charismatic and fun by comparison, always up for a dance with a presence enigmatic enough to draw all eyes to her. In the film’s quieter moments, Negga brilliantly showcases Clare’s loneliness, regret, and the isolation she feels as a passing woman, caught between two worlds while understanding how the truth would completely upend her life. As both women confront their complicated bi-racial identities in a dominating white world, Thompson and Negga’s searing performances brilliantly balance the characters’ inability to escape the confines of society. Their chemistry and the intensity of their interactions can’t be beat.
The black and white cinematography choice is fitting to the style and setting of Passing, bringing an additional layer of intimacy and elegance to the film. Passing tackles racial identity and the different ways in which people pass in life—be it in the way Clare passes as white or how Irene ignores all conversations regarding racial violence with her sons so that she can continue passing things off as being okay. Bringing Larsen’s novel to life was always going to be difficult, but Hall showcases her talent for adapting such nuanced material.
Passing allows us into these women’s lives, exploring their interiority and the layered dynamics between them and the two societies through dialogue and pointed looks. It’s often in the unsaid where the film truly flourishes. That said, the film drags in the middle, which leaves the story stagnant for a while before fully ramping up in the final ten minutes. The buildup is slow and there could have been more scenes between Clare and Irene, if only to expand upon their friendship (there isn’t enough of Negga, which is a shame). Despite these criticisms, Passing is a strong, poignant, and alluring debut for Hall and a true showcase of Thompson and Negga’s talents.
Passing premiered Jan. 30, 2021 at the Sundance Film Festival. For more Sundance 2021 coverage, click here.