Nella Larsen’s novel Passing is an enthralling and wholly complex examination of race, sexuality and the American Dream in 1920s Harlem; a truly timeless work that became the calling-card for Larsen. In her adaptation of the novel, Rebecca Hall’s Passing becomes a similarly formative work, a directorial debut that’s as ravishing, searing and intricate as the novel that it’s based on. Like Larsen, Hall hails from a mixed background, and with her film she takes her experiences and roots them in this artfully complicated story of deeply-felt moral contradictions that resists any semblance of being heavy-handed.
Shot in opulent, luminous and thematically fitting black-and-white in a 4:3 aspect ratio by cinematographer Eduard Grau, Hall and Grau, from the beginning, refine the film’s sense of uncertain tension, observant gazes, and confined living. Hall, as well, tweaks the source material by trimming the narrative to focus even more intimately on its two central characters, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry Bellew (Ruth Negga). The film opens as a quiet and restrained Irene navigates her way through a muggy New York City summer day, slightly obscuring her face behind her hat. She’s so careful that even a pair of white women who accidentally drop a racially caricatured doll at her feet don’t balk when Irene, a black woman, returns it to them. The question of whether they don’t pick up on her racial identity or simply don’t care lingers in its uncertainty as Irene continues her errands still concealed. She soon stops at the rooftop café at a luxurious hotel, where she locks eyes with the gaze of a white woman sitting a few tables over. What exactly she sees piercingly persists through Irene’s conscious.
Thompson, a rare actress who finds power in both Marvel tentpole blockbusters and in understated period pieces, plays Irene as a natural observer. She’s always watching, and Hall stages multiple scenes through making notes of people’s sharp gazes and possible inner-thoughts. No one is a harder looker than Clare, though. Childhood friends who haven’t seen each other in nearly a decade, Irene is shocked to realize that the white woman staring at her isn’t really white; it’s Clare, who’s bi-racial, just like Irene herself. Throughout, Hall never relies on any sense of silver-platter explanations in regards with the transpiring relationship between these two women, trusting the viewer will put it together with what Clare’s current state is. Clare has done something that shocks Irene to her core: She’s passing as white. She’s married a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) and had an even lighter-skinned child, scarcely paying any attention to the Harlem of her youth.
But rekindling with Irene quickly ignites something within Clare, and Negga’s vivacious performance cleverly masks the boiling confusion building inside of her. As happy as Clare says she is with her life, her instant obsession with Irene — and quick insertion into her life — hints at how desperate she is to share the rooted secret she’s kept for so long. Thompson is, in her own way, coiled in nerves, and while Negga has the bigger performance, Thompson shines in her bundled manner. Hall brought a hell of collective to enshrine her film’s formidable aesthetic sensibilities — whether it be from Nora Mendis’ enveloping production design to Marci Rodgers’ intricate costume design to Devonté Hynes’ quietly piercing score — but the casting of her two leads hit notes that are hard to match.
Understandably, Irene can’t shake the interactions, and when a letter arrives from Clare, stuffed with flowery language that makes Irene’s husband Brian (Andre Holland) chuckle, she’s unable to ignore the effect her old friend has had on her. Much like Larsen’s novel, Hall’s Passing simmers with a homoerotic subtext that eventually boils into jealousy and ruin. But like so much of Passing, nothing is exactly as it seems on first impression, not even the reaction of a spouse seeing her partner gush over someone else. There are countless questions with each relationship, as Hall forces implications to be plucked from between the lines of subtext. It’s in all the words unsaid that the film’s narrative prowess resides.
As someone indelibly irrepressible, Clare begins to spend more and more time at the Redfields’ Harlem home, essentially pleading her way into their lives, as Brian and their young boys fall into Clare’s sway. Spending time in Harlem, even if most people think she’s white, frees Clare to enjoy the things she’s so long shut out of her life, even as the steady Irene reminds her of the danger in the game she’s playing. As Irene and Clare become more interwoven, Passing looks at the confines of society and who exactly is guarding such gates, free will or some outside force? And who decides who’s in or out? As Clare’s secret frays into Irene’s consciousness and her sense of self, Passing rejects any easy answers. Larsen’s novel walked a similar tightrope, raising the drama without giving a sense of relief. Even when a definitive conclusion comes, the tension and questions don’t come close to stopping. And how can they not? Larsen never set out to deliver answers; just rich, searching stories wrapped in a lived-in world. Which is precisely what Hall has translated onto screen, announcing herself as a daunting talent. Alluringly obtuse and filled with a sumptuous grace, Passing is a puzzle box of hefty, thematic enigmas, one where Rebecca Hall’s deft control glides this fierce look at searching for identity in America into being unforgettably stirring.
Passing premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Updated Note: Passing is available to stream on Netflix.)