'Passing': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Courtesy of Eduard Grau

From left: Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in 'Passing'


Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play Black women in 1920s New York, navigating the "color line" from opposite sides in Rebecca Hall's adaptation of the Harlem Renaissance novel.

Exquisite performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga provide the pulsing, emotionally heightened center to Passing, Rebecca Hall's assured move behind the camera, adapted with great sensitivity from the 1929 novel by Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen. "We're all of us passing for something or other, aren't we?" muses Thompson's melancholy character Irene Redfield. This is a dreamily atmospheric evocation of 1920s New York, its bursts of Jazz Age exuberance offset by the contained threat of people being unmasked. It tells an intimate story of two women on either side of the "color line" while undertaking an intersectional exploration of identity in relation to race, gender, class and sexuality.

Hall's choice of material for her debut as writer-director is elevated by her evident personal investment in the story, having learned years ago that her American maternal grandfather, who died before she was born, was Black passing as white for most of his life. That intense connection pervades every lovingly composed shot of a work that takes an unwaveringly measured, subtle approach to subject matter frequently treated in the past as high melodrama, notably in films like Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life. The veiled contemplation of queer desire, as well as the setting and approach, invite greater comparison to semi-experimental films like Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston.

Like that 1989 medium-length British feature, Passing is shot in gauzy black and white, in this case framed in the old Hollywood standard 4:3 aspect ratio to suggest portrait photography but also a strictly contained world of self-imposed boundaries — "safe," except when it's suddenly not. Visually, this is Spanish cinematographer Edu Grau's most expressive period work since A Single Man, his images enhanced by top-notch craft collaborations from production designer Nora Mendis and costumer Marci Rodgers, both of whom provide rich detailing. The underscoring of composer Devonté Hynes' gentle jazz piano strains contributes further to the vivid conjuring of a lost world.

The effective opening locks in on Irene on a rare trip downtown beyond the more protected confines of Harlem as she half-hides beneath a chic wide-brimmed hat on a sweltering summer day, averting her gaze from every store clerk, sidewalk pedestrian or taxi driver she encounters. Her fear of exposure and humiliation seems palpable as she seeks a reprieve from the heat in the palm-filled tea room of the fictional Drayton Hotel, which is based on the Drake in Chicago. As in Larsen's novel, the establishment does not have the era's ubiquitous "No Coloreds" signs, though the white clientele make it clear Irene is there because she has gone unnoticed as she powders down her flushed complexion.

The sharp contrast between the two principal characters is instantly apparent when Clare Kendry (Negga), a close friend from her youth, surprises "Renie" with an effusive greeting. With her breathy, soft-spoken speech and perky blond flapper hairdo, it's obvious Clare passes as white even before she explains that her banker husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) knows only that she was raised by her white religious aunts after her father died. She explains that since having a daughter, she hasn't dared try again for the son she always wanted, in case he "comes out dark."

Irene is nervous, anxious to get away, but Clare is too thrilled to find her again after 12 years to let her go, insisting they go to her suite where they can talk. The early return of John, who has brought them to New York from Chicago on business, reveals him to be an unabashed racist. Clare laughs off his words with practiced nonchalance as he jokes that his wife has gotten darker every day since their marriage, hence his term of endearment for her, "Nig." He explains that she's more intolerant than he is, and won't even have a Black maid. Renie is visibly disturbed by the encounter, even if the warmth John's wife shows toward her means it would never occur to him that she's anything but white.

There's a marked visual switch from Clare and John's suite, an airy space drenched in white light, to the more textured look inside the Harlem brownstone where Irene lives with her doctor husband Brian (André Holland) and their two boys. The action flashes forward to the fall, when a letter from Clare, postmarked New York, indicates that she has moved back to the city as she hoped. Irene is hesitant to open it, but Brian is more curious, arching his eyebrows at Clare's florid description of "this pale life of mine," as she gently chides Renie for exposing her "wild desire" for another life.

When Clare turns up at her door, her petulance over Irene's non-response to her letter is like that of a spurned lover. But despite Renie's warnings that she's courting danger by coming to Harlem, Clare soon settles into giddy happiness at their reunion. She confesses that seeing her old friend again released her loneliness of never being able to be open with anyone; she envies Renie her "good life, free and safe."

But in Thompson's unshowy, beautifully internalized performance, Irene is restricted in her own way to the prescribed codes of marriage, motherhood and middle-class respectability. Negga, on the other hand, has an almost Blanche DuBois performative air in her manner, with a fluttering musical lilt as she thanks Irene for her diplomacy toward her racist husband: "It was very kind of you to be so delicate about it."

When Irene reveals that she's working with the white writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp) on the organizing committee for an upcoming Negro Welfare League dance, Clare insists on coming, ignoring her friend's concerns. Brian expresses his disdain for anyone living in denial of who they are, but he's gradually charmed by the "blond princess from Chicago." Clare works her beguiling spell on everyone, including the Redfields' sons and their darker-skinned housekeeper Zu (Ashley Ware Jenkins).

Hall's layered screenplay impresses in its ability to reflect, without didacticism, on the elastic borders of identity and the mutable dualities between Black and white, man and woman, gay and straight. A droll conversation between Irene and her friend Hugh at the dance brings up points about exoticism and "emotional excitement" in the somewhat predatory interest of sophisticated white New Yorkers in uptown Black society.

Camp is, well, gloriously camp as Hugh chortles about his wife being whirled around the dance floor by a series of dapper "Ethiopian" men, revealing his own not-so-closeted interest in them by commenting on one "fantastically handsome" dark-skinned dancer who is a magnet to half the women in the crowded room. Interestingly, Hugh is the only one immune to Clare's allure, perhaps because she doesn't share his self-infatuation. He's quietly disparaging about the "poor little me" act of her shadow existence.

Using the apt device of occasional white-outs between scenes, the director navigates a smooth tonal modulation as Irene's observation of Clare's happiness at the dance quietly uncovers something missing in her own life and seems to shift the dominant desire from one woman to another. This acquires poignant shades of sadness as Renie shows signs of falling apart, self-medicating during Clare's absence in Europe and then drifting to the margins when her friend returns, a brighter social butterfly than ever.

Still, the homoerotic undertones in their scenes have a lovely, delicate yearning quality, for instance in one gorgeous interlude where the two women chat on Irene's Harlem stoop as the sounds of a neighborhood jazz trumpeter's practice drift lazily through the air. In a moment of shocking forthrightness, Clare reveals she would "do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away" to get what she wants out of life, having openly expressed earlier that the comforts of money make her ethnic subterfuge worth it. "I'm not safe," she confesses, a warning that carries startling blunt force.

In a script full of attention to dividing lines both bold and blurred, Hall also weaves in threads about the lines separating children and adults. Irene seeks to maintain her sons' innocence about the ugliness in the world, while Brian sees it as necessary for them to be aware of the hatred behind racial slurs they hear at school, causing his wife discomfort when he shares graphic details of a lynching in Arkansas. "I'm old enough not to be spoken to like a child anymore," says her eldest boy. Brian feels strongly about taking the family away from "this hellish place," while Irene is reluctant to leave America, seemingly more so since Clare re-entered her life.

The drama builds, perhaps inevitably but no less affectingly, to tragedy, taking its cue from Larsen in re-appropriating the trope of the "tragic mulatto" from early African American literature from a more psychologically nuanced perspective. The sorrowful turn brings race firmly to the center of the story, though its violence comes in a development that will be surprising for anyone unfamiliar with the novel.

The catalyst for the final scenes is a chance encounter on the street with John when Renie is out shopping with her glamorous Harlem socialite friend Felise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), a willowy stunner whose skin is too dark to escape the racist banker's notice.

Skarsgård deserves credit for taking on a relatively tiny role, filling in some of the shading missing in the script's characterization of John both here and in a powerful subsequent scene. And Holland brings depth and intelligence to a man anchored by a firm sense of who he is and the world in which he exists. But the film belongs to the two superb actresses at its center.

Negga's seemingly blasé attitude when Renie questions Clare on what she would do if John found out the truth about her is a piercing moment of self-revelation behind her studied poise. And Thompson is devastating, conveying with an increasing burden of sadness the ways in which Irene — despite purporting to live more openly than her friend — is defined by a deep sense of longing that in turn defines the film.

Whether this is a one-time passion project or the beginnings of an ongoing move from acting into directing in her career focus, Hall has crafted a work that's thoughtful, provocative and emotionally resonant.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Significant Productions, Picture Films, Flat Five, in association with AUM Group, XRM Media, Film4, TGCK Partners, Gamechanger Films, Sweet Tomato Films
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga,
André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Ashley Ware Jenkins
Director-screenwriter: Rebecca Hall, based on the novel by Nella Larsen
Producers: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker, Margot Hand, Rebecca Hall
Executive producers: Oren Moverman, Angela Robinson, Erika Hampson, Michael Y. Chow, Kevin A. Lin, Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, Lauren Dark, Daniel Battsek, Ollie Madden, Brenda Robinson, Chaz Ebert, Yvonne Huff, Christopher Liu, Arcadiy Golubovich, Dori A. Rath, Joseph J. Restaino, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri
Director of photography: Edu Grau

Production designer: Nora Mendis
Costume designer: Marci Rodgers
Devonté Hynes
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Visual effects supervisor: David Tecson
Casting: Laura Rosenthal, Kimberly Ostroy

Sales: Endeavor Content

98 minutes