In 1920s New York, two Black women with a shared past reconnect in the unlikeliest of places: the dining room of a whites-only hotel. Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga) has committed to passing as white, married to a white man ignorant of her true background (Alexander Skarsgård), while Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) is only playing white for a day of shopping before going home to Harlem, where she lives with her Black husband Brian (André Holland), a doctor, and their two sons. Clare, fully estranged from her origins and desperately lonely, is thrilled to see Irene and strike up a friendship. Irene is far more reluctant about rekindling a connection, but as much as there are things about Clare she dislikes, she is intrigued by her more. Adapted from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, an impressionistic character study of two complicated women and their at-times rivalrous friendship, Passing also marks the feature debut for accomplished actress Rebecca Hall as a writer and director.
Generally speaking, Hall presents a commendable case for her filmmaking chops. While there are a few odd quirks of the script that do feel like the work of a relatively fresh writer—there’s an odd frequency with which scenes open, with characters being asleep, and a bit of an overreliance on discussions of the weather to signal the passage of time—but the script is an overall solid adaptation. That said, there is at times room to question if Hall feels like the best person to tackle this particular material.
Hall’s story of how she came to Larsen’s novel is remarkable: As an adult, Hall discovered that her maternal grandfather was a white-passing Black man, and as she grappled to come to terms with the discovery, someone recommended Larsen’s novel. It’s a compelling origin story, but doesn’t quite make a winning argument for Hall’s qualifications to helm the adaptation the same way finishing the introductory course with a gold star doesn’t make you the best person to actually teach the class. It would have been a perfect argument if the novel in question had been Sinclair Lewis’ Kingsblood Royal, but it is not, and that Hall is a bit of a newcomer to grappling with questions of Blackness does show at times.
Passing is a film I was both deeply curious and deeply reluctant to see. As a biracial Black woman who is incredibly light-skinned and lives in Harlem, this film is very much in my wheelhouse to the extent that makes it impossible to not be particularly scrutinizing—this one is fundamentally personal. (Furthermore, I have a Black father and a white Irish mother; Ruth Negga is my representation.) Ultimately, the movie is solidly fine.
Adaptation is a tricky business. Something is always lost in translation between one medium and another, and film adaptations that are able to surpass “all right” to “truly great” are those where the filmmaker is able to bring some new insight or angle to the table to compensate for what is lost. Hall, in the film, comes across as an earnest devotee of the novel but something of an outsider to the subject matter. The original text is the gospel to an extent that limits the film’s ultimate potential; Hall reveres it too much to add her own signature. This is not a fatal flaw by any means, but a decidedly limiting factor for the film. Passing is a solid adaptation in the sense that it does a good job of faithfully converting Larsen’s novel in a way that does a decent job of limiting the inherent losses that come in making the jump from text to screen, but does not add anything new to the mix to compensate for that which ultimately cannot make the transition effectively.
Films can be made (or destroyed) in casting, and Passing is a premier example of a film elevated by incredibly smart casting choices. Negga, always brilliant, shines as Clare, the real crux of the film. She takes a role that could easily have slipped into trite tragic mulatto and presents the most nebulous and electrifying version of the character, almost playfully nihilistic as she dances toward disaster. When we first meet Irene, she is passing for a day; by contrast, as Clare furthers her friendship with Irene and Brian and their extended social circle up in Harlem, she fully begins living a double life and taking increasingly dangerous risks.
Clare feels like Passing’s center of gravity, but Irene is technically the principal character in terms of screen time. While Thompson gives a strong performance overall, the film struggles to crack her character. Her inner conflicts are subtler than Clare’s and far more sublimated, something incredibly difficult to handle on-screen. Several of Irene’s internal struggles feel rather unevenly applied; the novel’s subtle lesbian subtext, for example, feels very prominent in specific moments and then entirely absent elsewhere. Similarly, there is an issue with pills indicated in a couple of sequences that then seems to disappear. Her character teeters back and forth between intriguingly nebulous and overly opaque.
Holland’s performance as Brian is also of note (Holland is, of course, always of note). The way he is able to conjure depth and foster empathy is practically magic, and seeing him play a doctor in period clothes makes my heart yearn for that Barry Jenkins-helmed revamp of The Knick that I pray will actually come to fruition someday.
This is a very pretty film. Eduard Grau’s soft-edged black and white cinematography in old-school Academy ratio is an aesthetic treat for the eye. Visual storytelling-wise, when it comes to the more general idea of diving into a woman on the verge of a breakdown, there are a lot of smart things going on here. In one particularly striking example, Irene descends the stairs of her home, and the camera steps into her point of view to see what appears to be Clare and Brian canoodling with a more-than-friendly closeness, only for the next shot to reveal it to be a trick of forced perspective, with the two in fact properly socially distanced in their seating arrangements.
However, when it comes to some of the more specific aspects of place and identity, the film feels like it’s going for a gentleman’s C rather than the extra mile. There is much of the subtext of racial identity that feels not as baked into the film as it perhaps could have been. An ongoing source of tension in Irene and Brian’s increasingly fraught marriage is in how they approach raising their sons. Brian wants to speak to them frankly about current events like the lynching of Black men and the injustices Black people face, but Irene gets upset at him whenever he does and speaks of wanting to “preserve their innocence.” Watching this, as a Black woman, the source of their differing views felt rather obvious—Irene, who is much lighter-skinned and able to pass for white when so compelled, has a very different experience of Blackness, especially while being in white spaces, than do Brian or their sons, none of whom can pass for white. But this felt like an understanding I had to project upon the film, which seems somewhat uncomfortable with conversations like these, entering and exiting them abruptly in ways where it feels like it at times doesn’t know what to say.
Still, overall, Passing is a solid adaptation. Although not without flaws, it is elevated into something genuinely worth recommending (albeit with reservations) by stellar performances.
Passing was reviewed out of the 2021 New York Film Festival. It will receive a limited theatrical release starting October 27, 2021, and will start streaming on Netflix on November 10.
Header Image Source: NETFLIX