Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe. Directed by Rebecca Hall.
Passing is a film which will likely garner different reactions based on the race of the viewer. The story follows two Black women who were friends in childhood. The Harlem-based Irene (Tessa Thompson), wife of doctor Brian Redfield (Andre Holland), and Clare (Ruth Negga) who has convinced her racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgard) that she is white.
Hall adapts the screenplay from the novel by Nella Larsen, and has stated that the book meant a lot to her and her own mixed heritage that she for a long time didn’t accept. The film is one of subtlety; Hall’s directing is painterly, and literate in the cinema of the past. Many scenes feel as though they could have been directed by melodrama legend Douglas Sirk, though Hall is keen to keep the focus on Thompson.
It helps that Thompson is more than up to the challenge of the lead role. Irene is a role of suppression, someone who is proud to be a Black woman but also knows that if she chose to pass as white she could easily get further in life. At times, the time difference from the novel and now (one hundred years) makes certain things an issue to swallow – John doesn’t see that his wife is clearly a person of colour, and he mistakes Irene, who makes zero attempts to cover her race, for white. These concepts are more than a stretch for our more modern sensibilities.
Negga gets a slightly more easy role as the carefree but emotionally fragile Clare. Her flirtatious nature make her a more alluring prospect and she crackles on screen with a sensuality that cannot be faked but just exists. Her natural chemistry with both Thompson and Holland work perfectly to create a strange dynamic. Similarly Holland is magnetic as the loving, almost noble Brian who harbours his own dislikes about the world – wanting to move from Harlem, the lack of intimacy in his marriage.
The film’s flaws are basic ones, as handsome as the monochrome cinematography is, and the eye for period detail, the film is almost laughably inert. The film threatens to turn into a much more interesting melodrama – there’s clear sexual tension between not only Irene and Clare but Clare and Brian, there’s a question about the ethics of running a charity for Black people while employing a Black maid, the voyeurism of white people who involve themselves in the lives of Black people but still use racial slurs in conversation.
Hall doesn’t mine these subjects, and the slender run time doesn’t offer much investigation into any of the ideas present – Black sexuality is all but non-existent, the ever looming threat of John discovering his wife is Black only comes into play at the end. Yet the film casts a spell thanks to the elegant but unfussy direction of Hall, and the performances.
The screenplay may follow the book all too thoroughly without ever taking a twenty first century scalpel to the subject – a more interesting film would have explored sexuality or at least dynamics. But Thompson, Negga and Holland manage to hold the attention even when the film veers into time ellipsis that leave you wondering if whole sections of the story were just cut out at random.
It is then an admirably mature look at race and relationships that not only doesn’t offer easy answers, at times just doesn’t answer anything it raises, yet is held aloft by performances that respect the source, subject and audience enough to carry the flaws well.