Passing (United States/United Kingdom, 2021)

October 28, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Passing Poster

The realities that human beings create around themselves are, by their nature, fragile things – some more fragile than others. In her directorial debut, actress Rebecca Hall addresses the malleability of identity via her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing. Although focused primarily on the different life choices of two light-skinned black women living in Prohibition Era New York City, the movie addresses other themes as well, including obsession and the fear of losing something one has fought hard to attain. Although more a drama than a thriller, there are elements of the latter in Passing as the relationship between the central women grows increasingly complex with attraction and jealousy becoming entwined.

Filmed in black-and-white and using the 1.33:1 “Academy” ratio, Passing is meant to suggest filmmaking from the era when the story transpires. It’s an effective device in more ways than one. By choosing b&w over color, Hall is able to use lighting to emphasize skin color (bright, direct lighting results in a paler coloration), which is a key element of the film. The film has other throwback elements – the musical score is minimal and the “provocative” elements (like sex and profanity) are kept at levels that would have been allowable in the pre-Code days. While Hall isn’t trying to make a 1930-ish motion picture, she effectively evokes the feel of one and it goes a long way toward establishing the mood.

Growing up in Harlem during the 1910s, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), were good friends who shared one notable physical quality: both were light-skinned black girls. In adulthood, they pursued different avenues. Irene still lives in Harlem; she’s married to a doctor, Brian (Andre Holland), has two children, and is involved in the Negro League (to such an extent that her husband claims it occupies a higher place in her affections than he does). Meanwhile, Clare has been “passing” as a white woman. She’s married to a wealthy (but racist) man, John (Alexander Skarsgard), and has a daughter who’s at school in Switzerland. After having lived in Chicago, she returns to New York where she and Irene attempt to rekindle their long-ago affiliation.

From the outside looking in, both women appear to have the lives they want, but there are cracks (something observed by the camera a little too literally when it points at the ceiling of Irene’s bedroom). Clare is lonely, trapped in a loveless marriage and dissociated from a culture she finds increasingly desirable the farther she drifts from it. Irene’s life is full but her husband is clearly frustrated by a lack of physical intimacy. Clare’s re-entry into Irene’s life, although initially unwanted and disruptive, becomes something else. There are hints of sexual attraction (emphasized by the way Hall and d.p. Eduard Grau use light to form a blazing corona around Clare’s mane of blond hair in one shot when Irene gazes at her) and deepening jealousy as Irene observes a slow dance of seduction performed by her friend for her husband. But there’s a danger to these proceedings: John is vehemently anti-black and, if he was to learn the truth about his wife, the repercussions could be violent.

While elements of Passing are more relevant in a historical context, the themes about identity remain as strong (if not stronger) today than ever before as multi-racial relationships result in children with an increasingly diverse genetic makeup and greater questions about their heredity and place in the world. The concept of “passing,” once perceived as a means of using a “preferred” skin color as a means to gain an advantage that someone with a darker pigmentation might not have, no longer has the same connotation it once did but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still happening. Passing is perceptive in addressing this as it pertains to both Clare and Irene.

Although there are moments of creative camerawork (the opening scene being an example as the first image gradually bleeds from a blur of white), the movie straddles the line between an artistic endeavor and a more conventional potboiler. When it comes to the dynamics in the triangle of Irene, Clare, and Brian, there’s a good dose of romantic melodrama to interweave with the more existential aspects. That part of the movie, along with precise, compelling performances by both of the leads (and a nicely acerbic turn by Bill Camp in a supporting role) keep Passing moving at a fast clip. The movie has a magnetic quality that’s all the more welcome because of all the weighty issues forming its foundation. It’s a tremendous debut effort for Hall, whose work seems more like that of a seasoned veteran than a first-timer.

Passing (United States/United Kingdom, 2021)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2021-10-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Racism)
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1