The alleged dead-and-buried practice of racist passing light-skinned blacks in the United States decades ago is brought back to the fore in Passing, a delicate, sensitive, deliberately claustrophobic, and not-quite-lithe directorial debut by protean British stage artist Rebecca Hall. Based on Nella Larsen’s recently resurrected 1929 novel, which was a modest success in its day, the film is undeniably fascinating for its outlook on a very specific convention that younger generations know very little about. However, the adaptation is also decorated in a more arched and dry way, with a more rehearsed than spontaneous feeling that sometimes weighs on things. However, this is something very different from what is usual in both cinemas and the subway, and given the subject matter, it will attract the intellectually curious and culturally informed.
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The phenomenon of passing has been known to the general public over the past century from 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 were still forced to just sit on the balcony in many regions of the country. There was also the 1960 film, I Passed for White, based on a real life book and a reversal of the same concept, Black Like Me, a 1961 book and four years later a film about a white writer who his book darkened skin to experience life in the south as a black man.
It’s been a long time since old school friends Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) saw each other when they happened to meet again in New York. “You’ve changed so much,” Irene can’t help but notice that Clare, who is quite fair-skinned, dyed her hair blonde and commercially married the strikingly Viking-looking John (Alexander Skarsgard) with a full beard who was in his twenties Years ago it wasn’t even remotely fashionable. When Irene asks John: “Have you ever known Negroes?” He replies: “No, but I know people who know you.”
Accompanied by a tinkered piano score, the film feels a bit stiff from the start, with a precious, less dramatic swing. The two old friends talk to each other in a strangely formal way, and the rooms feel pretty bare. With a charade, Clare has tried to make a statement to distance herself from her past and real self in order to rise in society. Appearance is everything and after a few minutes some of the extended chit chat scenes become quite bleak in their pretense and goofy haughtiness. Additionally, Hall is doing them a disservice by not adding a lot of momentum to the exchanges. For too long the film feels almost sluggish and needs to be brought to life.
Part of the “trapped” feeling comes from the wise decision to use the boxy old 4: 3 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Eduard Grau makes the most of it, as most of the film is shot in a confined space and the way he and Hall artificially compress the world the characters live in poses the threat of what’s outside of all existentially oppressive things.
The focus of the drama remains very narrow until the end and will only expand when Irene and her husband Brian (Andre Holland) finally move with their two sons from Chicago to New York and do some charity work with Hugh (Bill Camp), whose Sharp-eyed suspicions about the truth about Irene are born when she makes her most open admission on the subject: “We all pass over as something, don’t we?”
Hall’s adaptation is carefully constructed and very attentive to the needs of the two central female characters as they desperately try to keep their artificially created little worlds to themselves. There are hints of a self-destructive Tennessee Williams heroine in Clare creating a fantasy by forging a fragile but ultimately unsustainable private domain that is all about keeping up appearances. Psychologically, it’s not complex at all, but the movie’s variation on a certain type of self-denial is tragic and quite unusual on-screen.
Negga and Thompson are great as women, whose main impulses lead them to live lies, constructs that take them very far – and in the most drastic cases fatal – of what they were born to do. Whatever problems the film may have, it gives a distinctive glimpse of how certain things were not that long ago.
Passing celebrated its world premiere in the US Dramatic Competition section. Running time: 98 minutes. Commercial Agent: Endeavor Content.