Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Plot: As her debut film, Rebecca Hall has adapted Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, Passing. It is a story about two African-American women, old school friends, Irene and Clare, whose light skin colour enables them to ‘pass’ as a white person in American society. They meet by chance in an ‘whites-only’ hotel in upmarket Manhattan having not seen each other since their schooldays. Irene, has retreated there, hot and bothered, after a day of shopping. Laden with expensive-looking parcels, the doorman welcomes her and she is led to a white-clothed table. There is an air of tension as she waits. Then Clare arrives and taking a table across the room, she locks eyes with Irene for an uncomfortable length of time, after which she walks over to join her. While Clare clearly recognises her old friend, Irene has trouble placing her until, in a flood of remembrance, the women reconnect. It’s a powerful scene, both women ‘passing’ together in a place that is forbidden to them in America’s racially prohibitive era.
As they talk it is clear that their lives have turned out very differently. Irene, serious and respectable, is part of the New York Black elite, living with with her husband and two sons in their large brownstone house in Harlem. She is active in the Negro Welfare League, and they have a black maid, Zu, who caters for their needs. Irene doesn’t usually ‘pass’, and the reason why she does so on this day remains unexplained. Clare, whose hair is bleached blonde, is confident, dynamic and vivacious. She’s been passing as white since she moved to live with her white aunties, after which she met and married her white, wealthy, and openly racist husband, John. He has no idea that Clare passes for white. After the chance encounter, Clare is increasingly drawn to Irene, turning up at her house and becoming more and more involved in Irene’s family. The need for her to connect once again with the black community becomes obsessive. At first wary of Clare, Irene becomes entranced and captivated by her old friend. But as their lives intertwine the intensity of their relationship begins to threaten their marriages, which ultimately exposes the dangers of ‘passing’.
Cast: Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare are outstanding in the lead roles. The chemistry between them is intense. Thompson is particularly impressive, confident one minute and vulnerable the next. Alexander Skarsgård is terrific as John, the truly detestable husband of Clare, and André Holland, is also very good playing the complexity of Irene’s husband Brian. It’s a sterling cast, and everyone does well.
Filming and Setting: Filmed in black and white, the cinematography is stylish and impressive. As a means of illustrating the subtleties of emotional and moral shades of grey, its pretty much pitch perfect.
Personal Comments: This is an engrossing film that digs deeply into issues of race, jealousy, belonging, and unhappiness. It is a nuanced and powerful film that portrays characters who are all ‘passing’ in one way or another. Clair passes fluidly across race and class boundaries as she befriends Zu, Irene’s maid, while being an endless fascination for Irene’s husband, and her friend, Hugh Wentworth, a celebrated white novelist – who also happens to be passing as ‘straight’. Both Clare and Irene are ‘passing’ as happily married and satisfied with their lives. There is a simmering tension throughout the film, and at one stage Clare tells us that for her, the price of ‘passing’ has been worth it. We know somehow there is going to be a price paid for all this, and we are on tenterhooks waiting for it.