NYFF 2021 review: Passing (Rebecca Hall)

“Rebecca Hall, tackling weighty subject matter in her debut film, hasn’t yet scaled the heights of insight and drama but admiration is due to her for a noble and notable first attempt.”

A black-and-white – and academy-ratio – literary adaptation and period piece about American racial identity is a lot to take on for a young, white, British actress making her filmmaking debut. Remarkably, Rebecca Hall displays promising steadiness of her craft as she launches her directing career on an auspicious and race-conscious note. Hall deserves credit for putting a spotlight on Nella Larsen, an important but underappreciated pathbreaker whose work – as one of the few Black women writing for a major audience in the 1920s – needs greater visibility. Passing will foment increased readership of the 93-year-old novelist, greater inclusion in school curricula, and reconsideration of Larsen’s legacy.

The story centres on two light-skinned Black women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), estranged childhood friends who meet years later in 1920s New York City. Irene is married to a Black man, Brian (André Holland), and has a primarily Black friend circle. Clare has “passed” for white and is married to a white racist man (Alexander Skarsgård) who does not know that she is Black. Deeply unhappy, Clare uses Irene to reconnect with her Black brethren and invades Irene’s social circle against her wishes. Irene gets increasingly depressed as she comes to resent the admiration Clare engenders in her friends and even Brian.

An all-star cast helps bring these characters to life. Thompson, who we know primarily as a Marvel superhero, shows her range in a dramatic register. Better is Negga as the brittle, doomed Clare who in her most desperate moments recalls a biracial Blanche DuBois flung between two worlds. Skarsgård is limited to a handful of scenes and lines and seems to have cornered the “abusive husband” market after TV’s Big Little Lies. Holland, who we loved in Moonlight, gives a fantastic account of Black masculinity on-screen with a portrayal that is strong, sensitive, thoughtful, and even sexy. Indeed the three leads are supremely attractive in handsome period garb and suggest all kinds of coupling opportunities, though the Sapphic tension between Thompson and Negga is never really fanned by Hall.

The 4:3 framing is employed to great effect as Passing is first and foremost a film of faces. Shot digitally with anamorphic lenses, Ed Grau’s uncommonly excellent monochrome lensing boasts dreamy, shallow depth of field and rich contrast with inky blacks and blown-out whites – a look reminiscent of silent-era Hollywood. It is fortuitous that this year’s New York Film Festival also features the world premiere of Prism, Rosine Mfetgo Mbakam, An van Dienderen, and Éléonore Yaméogo’s documentary which advances the theory that lighting for movie cameras has always been calibrated for white skin. It is fascinating to ponder this revelation while watching Passing. The expressive shades of light and shadow with which Grau paints the two heroines’ faces give truth to the movie’s plot and discard any notion that the black and white is a gimmick.

Hall, serving as her own screenwriter, has judiciously adapted a slim volume into a fleet 98-minute film, but it is the screenplay that eventually leaves Passing earthbound. She had all the ingredients to make a delicious meal but only brings it to a gentle simmer rather than a big boil. There was a terrific Douglas Sirk melodrama to be made out of the ripe components of the novel but Hall is too timid, too constrained by fidelity to the source to truly deliver on the story’s dramatic potential. The denouement, which should land like a cudgel, registers as a glancing blow. Maybe Hall felt she would be taking liberties as a white filmmaker if she delved too deep into the psyche behind “passing” and complicated Irene’s envy of Clare by making it about more than just losing her man. The thorny contractions at the heart of the titular concept remain thoroughly unexplored and relegated to Clare’s subplot, and the main story is reduced to a tawdry jealousy drama. We hope Hall is more courageous and imaginative the next time.

Technical credits are modest. No funds seem to have been reserved for exterior set dressing or extras, though the interiors fare better. Filming entirely in close-ups and medium shots serves a thematic purpose, but one reckons it is also to protect the film’s budget. The editing uses a fade-to-white transition between sections as opposed to the traditional fade-to-black, a neat trick anticipated by Ingmar Bergman’s use of fade-to-red in Cries and Whispers. Female Ethiopian composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s bluesy The Homeless Wanderer serves as the primary musical theme. Given the movie’s racial focus and time period, it is an appropriate selection and favourably recalls the score from Miguel Gomes’ similarly black-and-white, academy-ratio film Tabu.

Acquired for a hefty fee out of Sundance, Passing should deliver decent viewing numbers for Netflix. The studio, however, might be more interested in award season plaudits and Hall and Negga could certainly be in line for numerous First Film and Supporting Actress honours.

Passing presents a necessary glimpse into a lesser-seen milieu – affluent and well-off Black characters 100 years ago, not free of the yoke of segregation or racism but living lives of possibility and achievement. And such positive representations are most welcome on screen. Racial identity continues to be a subject of great relevance today as it has moved past biology to become a cultural, sociological, and economical construct. Rebecca Hall, tackling such weighty matters in her debut film, hasn’t yet scaled the heights of insight and drama but admiration is due to her for a noble and notable first attempt.