Netflix is releasing Passing on November 10. Rebecca Hall’s debut feature is a beautifully shot black and white film seething with tension about two women with a secret.
Adapted from the novel by Nella Larsen, Passing tells the story of two Black women, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), who can “pass” as white in 1929 New York. Former childhood friends, Irene and Clare reunite on a chance encounter one summer afternoon. The two women lead very different lives. Irene lives in Harlem with her husband Brian (Andre Holland), and their two boys. Clare has been passing as white for several years, married to a rich racist white husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard), with whom she has a daughter. As these two women’s lives intertwine, Irene finds her world upended.
Passing is an unassumingly powerful film about identity and racism in the U.S. in the late 1920s. Passing is impeccably cast, with compelling performances, especially from Thompson and Negga, whose chemistry as Irene and Clare feels tangible. Hall’s cinematic style is impressive for a debut feature, reflecting the visual language created in the cinema of the 1920s.
There is a tension that permeates the film right from the beginning. As the film opens, Irene is shopping, searching for a gift for her son’s birthday. With her head tilted down so that her hat covers half her face, her glance is tentative around the other customers in the toy shop or when she talks to the shopkeeper. Irene is “passing” as white in a predominantly white neighborhood of New York. Fearing she’ll get caught, her discomfort is palpable, emphasized by the tight framing of the images in that sequence. Our view of what surrounds Irene is as limited as what she can see under her hat, as the frame of the images satys predominantly tight on her face.
Parched due to the heat of the summer, she enters the Drayton hotel. In the tea room, her glance meets the eyes of a woman seating opposite her. The woman is staring back at her. It is a beautifully filmed moment between the two women, as the shots alternate between the two women, looking at each other. Irene is visibly disconcerted by the sight of this glamorous blond lady staring her down, and panics. The stranger approaches her, and as Irene recognizes her laugh, she sees that it is her childhood friend Clare. This opening sequence is indicative of the rest of the movie.
The film follows Irene’s journey. Irene always seems to be hiding behind her hat (even when she is not wearing one). It is a life turned inwards that Irene leads. Irene lives in a handsome brownstone in Harlem with her doctor husband Brian and their two sons. A housewife, she spends her days falling asleep when she is not busy organizing events for the community’s Negro Welfare League. Her home offers her a safe cocoon, in which she does not even wish to hear about racist attacks happening around town—something Brian wants his sons to hear and learn. Clare appears diametrically opposed to Irene’s character. With her platinum blond hair and her “It Girl” attitude, Clare is outgoing and charismatic. Clare manages to seduce both Irene’s sons and eventually even perhaps Brian, to Irene’s growing dismay which slowly turning into jealousy. But an attraction also arises between the two women, both are fascinated with the other’s life.
Director of Photography Edu Grau’s crisp images, with its frame in a standard Academic 4:3 aspect ratio, denote an intimacy. Hall’s cinematic style pulls us viewers closer to Irene’s inner life. Her worries, her desire towards Clare, her boredom as a housewife, her growing jealousy, all become palpable visually. When Irene sits opposite John, Clare’s white husband, as he proudly proclaims himself a racist, Irene’s unease is unmistakable. The filmic style here makes Thompson’s performance shine, as we focus on her minute facial expressions.
There is a thoughtfulness to every shot, every frame of this film. The crisp black and white images here are not a gimmick. They recreate the feel of films of that era, and also more crucially, these images add another visual layer to this binary world being depicted—this black or white society. But, as the film suggests, it is an illusory construct created by society.
With Passing, Rebecca Hall proves to be a promising film director, with evidently a clear understanding of how to use the cinematic visual language to make the actors’ performance shine with bright intensity.