Sundance Review: Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga In Rebecca Hall’s ‘Passing’

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Todd McCarthy
·4 min read
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The presumed dead-and-buried practice of racial passing by light-skinned blacks in the United States decades ago is returned to center-stage in Passing, a delicate, sensitive, intentionally claustrophobic and not entirely limber directorial debut from the protean British stage performer Rebecca Hall. Based on the recently resurrected 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, which was a modest success in its time, the film is indisputably intriguing for its look at a very particular convention about which younger generations know very little. But the adaptation is also rather arch and aridly decorous, with a well-rehearsed rather than spontaneous feel that sometimes weighs things down. Still, this is something very different from the usual fare both in cinemas and on the tube and, given the subject matter, it will attract the intellectually curious and culturally informed.

The phenomenon of passing was familiar to the wide public during the last century due to a handful of popular entertainments, notably the musical stage classic Show Boat and its screen versions, Fannie Hurst’s hugely successful novel Imitation of Life, which also spawned two popular film adaptations, and Elia Kazan’s 1949 drama Pinky, a huge success at a time when black customers in many areas of the country were still forced to sit only in the balcony. There was also the 1960 film I Passed for White, based on a true-life book, and a reversal of the same concept, Black Like Me, a book in 1961 and, four years later, a film about a white writer who darkened his skin to experience living in the South as a black man.

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It’s been a long time since old school friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) have seen each other when they happen to meet again in New York City. “You’ve changed so,” Irene can’t help but remark, as Clare, who’s quite light-skinned, has dyed her hair blonde and, in the bargain, married the conspicuously Viking-looking John (Alexander Skarsgard), complete with a full beard that was not remotely in fashion during the Roaring Twenties. When Irene asks John, “Have you ever known any Negroes?,” he replies, “No, but I do know people who know them.”

Accompanied by a tinkly piano score, the film feels a bit stiff at the outset, with precious little dramatic oomph. The two old friends speak in a strangely formal manner with one another, and the rooms feel quite unlived-in. By living a charade, Clare has been trying to make a statement, to distance herself from her past and genuine self in order to rise in society. Appearances are all and, after a few minutes, some of the extended chit-chat scenes become rather dreary in their pretense and silly high-mindedness. On top of that, Hall does them no favors by not providing the exchanges with much oomph. For too long, the film feels close to inert, in need of bursting to life.

Part of the “trapped” feeling stems from the shrewd decision to employ the boxy old 4:3 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Eduard Grau makes the most of this, as most of the film is shot in confined spaces, and the way he and Hall artificially compress the world the characters inhabit makes the threat posed by what lies outside all the existentially oppressive.

The drama’s focus remains very tight all the way through, expanding only when Irene and her husband Brian (Andre Holland) move from Chicago to New York for good with their two sons and become involved in some charity work with Hugh (Bill Camp), whose sharp-eyed suspicions concerning the truth about Irene are born out when she issues her frankest admission on the subject: “We’re all of us passing as something or other, aren’t we?”

Hall’s adaptation is carefully constructed as well as very attentive to the needs of the two central female characters as they desperately try to maintain their artificially created little worlds for themselves. There are intimations of a self-destructive Tennessee Williams heroine in Clare, who creates a fantasy for herself by sculpting a fragile but ultimately unsustainable private domain involving the keeping up of appearances. Psychologically it’s not at all complex, but the film’s variation on a particular type of self-denial is tragic and quite unusual on the screen.

Negga and Thompson are splendid as women whose primary impulses lead them to live lies, constructs that take them very far—and, in the most drastic case, fatally so—from what they were born to be. Whatever issues the film may have, it does provide a distinctive glimpse of how certain things were not that long ago.

Passing made its world premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section. Running time: 98 minutes. Sales agent: Endeavor Content.

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