Passing – movie review

Discomfort looms large as two old school friends reunite after 12 years in Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, Passing.

It’s the 1920s.  Irene (Tessa Thompson) is the wife of a doctor, Brian (Andre Holland) and mother of two school age sons, Ted (Justus Davis Graham) and Junior (Ethan Barrett). They live in Harlem, where she volunteers her time to a charity called the Negro League. Clare (Ruth Negga) lives with her banker husband John (Alexander Skarsgard) in Chicago, but they are spending an increasing amount of time in New York – where Clare grew up – due to his work commitments. The two women meet by chance in the restaurant of an upmarket New York hotel.

At first, Irene doesn’t even recognise Clare, but it turns out that Clare is hiding a secret from her openly racist husband (a secret Irene knows). Missing Irene’s companionship, Clare starts spending increasing amounts of time with Irene, Brian, their children and their friends. As Clare is clearly happiest in their company, Irene grows more sullen.

The film suggests much more is going on here than meets the eye as the tension ramps up. I got the feeling early on it can only end badly. Shot in black and white in the old 4:3 format, the contrast and shadows on screen add greatly to the offering. So, too, the extreme close ups and artistic flourishes that punctuate the piece, the work of cinematographer Eduard Grau, allowing the audience to see things through Irene’s mind’s eye. An evocative soundtrack by Devonte Hynes helps set the tone.

The performances of the key players are noteworthy … and alluring. Thompson is foremost amongst them, her expressions saying as much as the words she utters. Negga readily channels both aspects of Clare, namely the lightning rod attraction she has to others and others to her, as well as her innate sadness. In fact, both she and Thompson play characters with evident vulnerabilities. Andre Holland is cast as the attempted voice of reason, who tries to navigate the increasing muddied waters between the two women.

Hall, better known as an actor in films including Vicky Cristina Barcelona, makes her debut as both writer and director. Her script uses a novella by Nella Larsen as source material. While the plot could have been further developed, Passing is a slow-moving arthouse offering that shows much promise.

I appreciated it as a reflection on ignorance and racism, which may have been more blatant in days past, but unfortunately remains ingrained today.

Alex First

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