Review: Passing

Director: Rebecca Hall

Stars: Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, André Holland

There’s a scene in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir in which young prospective filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is grilled on her desire to make a film about Sunderland dockworkers. She is questioned on why she has chosen a subject so alien to her own experience. One might well imagine a similar meeting happening for British middle-class actor Rebecca Hall on declaring her interest in making Passing; a piece set in 1920s New York that interrogates the Black experience of the time. Not exactly her wheelhouse, or so one might think (nor, in the spirit of fairness, that of this writer).

And yet, with her directorial debut (which has just arrived on Netflix), Hall has fashioned a statement that feels at once personal and judiciously divorced from her own extant persona. Hall discovered Nella Larsen’s Passing around the time she learned that she is one-eighth African American, and is quoted as having factored her discovery into her decision to make the film. To acknowledge this aspect of her ancestry. 

In the main this is a two-hander between two of the most talented women working on screen today. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star as Clare and Irene respectively. Two middle-class Black acquaintances who run into one another by chance. Irene quickly identifies that Clare is now ‘passing’ as white – to the extent that her bigoted husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) naively and jokingly nicknames her ‘Nig’. Irene laughs at the ridiculousness of the rouse – it’s transparency if you’ll pardon the pun – but it also sticks in her throat, and when Clare comes calling at her family home soon after, Irene is quick to question her friend’s choices. And then, belatedly, her own…

Hall’s choice to frame her piece in the ol’ Academy aspect ratio of 4:3 may seem like the pretentious designs of a budding film student, this being her debut and all. But it fondly kindles the pictures of the times (both the silent features and the early fumblings of the ‘talkies’). Speaking of talking, Passing is a wordy piece. An eloquent if stagy actors’ picture. This, too, kindles memories of the movies being made in the early days of sound cinema. It also continues a strong tradition of the actor-turned-director fashioning work primarily for actors.

Similarly, the choice to shoot in monochrome might seem like an on-the-nose reflection of the racially pointed subject matter, but this too doffs to the period, and Eduard Grau’s stylish cinematography only enhances the era-specific production design overseen by Nora Mendis. Passing looks every bit the prestige picture that Hall aspires to. Quite whether this obfuscates the issue of colour occurring within the film is a question to consider.

Still, this isn’t merely an inquisition of relations between Black and white a century ago, either. Class disparity also underscores the piece. While Irene and Clare are both well-to-do, their position in society feels queasily unstable. A conversation Irene has with her friend Hugh (Bill Camp) acknowledges that exoticism-as-novelty is a whim of whites that might just as quickly pass. Clare might well be rumbled – and there’s tension in that potentiality – but there’s a similar tension for Irene; the unspoken bias of being ‘tolerated’. Her husband Brian (André Holland) wishes to prepare their children for the cruelties at large in America. Irene, however, would rather shelter them from such “horrible” things, just as she has been sheltering herself.

Irene and Brian also keep a Black maid, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins), whose home-style cookery is coveted by Clare. Though never clumsily referenced as such, Zulena’s presence stands as a reminder to Irene of the limitations she might otherwise face in life. The woman’s relegation in the unfolding drama might read like an oversight.. but is more likely a pointed observation on how working class Black folk only exist(ed) in the peripheries for the privileged. 

Along with the politically loaded material bandied about with enjoyable melodrama, there are – thankfully – simpler joys to be had here, too Though she doesn’t press it, Hall’s film manages to show a devout admiration for the ’20s jazz scene, adding in brief sojourns with band in both bars and ballrooms. Their presence as social lubricant is all important, and only adds credence to the sensation of having been invited back in time.

Passing  is polite, leisurely and gentle. A tasteful and judiciously performed literary adaptation that behaves earnestly and knowingly as a modern imagining of microdramas  from ten decades ago. While it may strive to underscore just how far we’ve come, it also acknowledges how – too often – we’ve merely been circling the block. Strong work from all involved and a handsome calling card for the multi-talented Rebecca Hall.

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