Sundance 2021 ‘Passing’ Review: A Ravishing, Exquisitely Crafted Ode to the Complexities of Race

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The politics of skin tone can be confounding — at times inscrutable. The simplest negative reaction to skin color is the basic, boorish racist’s, who sees a person that looks different from them as not even a person at all, while never questioning the humanity of those they recognize as kin. But when visual markers do not obviously demarcate between the welcome familiar and the intrusive Other, these strict rules break down. These instances of ambiguity spotlight the fascinating predicament of those who transgress these binaries in how they choose to present themselves, and how this transgression affects not their bigoted enemies, but their informed friends and communities. The more intriguing questions of appearance often implicate the observed as much as the observer.

Rebecca Hall’s Passing centers this kaleidoscopic subject with utmost gentility, a stunning visual aesthetic, and exquisite performances. It is a modern masterpiece, and all the more impressive and substantial for its sense of withdrawn minimalism, quietude, and patience. Tessa Thompson stars as Irene Redfield, an observant, sophisticated woman living comfortably in late 1920s Harlem with her musician husband Brian (played by the always riveting André Holland). Irene is light-skinned enough that on occasion, when the disguise might prove useful, she dons a partially concealing hat, makes up her face to appear lighter in complexion, and passes for white.

We meet her in this mode at the film’s opening, as she searches downtown Manhattan for an in-demand book for one of her young sons. While in this whiter part of town, she happens to cross paths with an acquaintance from her past: Clare Kendry, played with undoubtedly award-worthy verve by the tremendous Ruth Negga. Clare is even lighter than Irene, and has taken her methodology to another level: she is living her life entirely as a white woman. She has even married a loathsome white supremacist, John, played by Alexander Skarsgård — an actor who only seems to take a role if it involves being an absolutely abominable person, particularly to his onscreen wife. 

Irene is both curious about and a little disturbed by Clare’s decision to live this way, and where Passing draws much of its intrigue is from her seemingly moment-to-moment reconsiderations of how she really feels about it all. Before long, Clare insists upon joining Irene and Brian regularly, despite Irene’s demure reservations and Brian’s obvious discomfort with her uncannily pale skin, faux-blonde hair, and affected voice patterns. Indeed, Negga does exceptionally well at playing Clare with a concoction of enticing sexuality and discomfiting duplicity. For a woman who is definitively living a lie, her confidence and bravado come off as strange and disorienting, and Hall, Thompson, and cinematographer Eduard Grau do a magnificent job capturing how those around Clare nevertheless become utterly transfixed by her. 

Hall adapted the script from Nella Larsen’s 98-page novella from 1929, itself a puzzle box of ruminations on how social binaries both reveal and dismantle what we expect of one another. Known for various genteel, layered onscreen roles, Hall herself has Black ancestry; a curious fact given the subject matter, and one made all the more curious given how she has almost never publicly brought this up before now. That is understandable: for a woman who looks like Hall, it might hardly have seemed opportune to publicly discuss her background at any point in her career so far — except now, when she’s debuting a film in which the complexities of spending one’s life passing for white is the entire concern. Whether based upon her own perceptions of racial identification or not, it’s clear that Hall has dedicated thoughtful, meticulous care in bringing this story to life.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

From beginning to end, every frame of Passing is breathtaking, gorgeous, stunning — you name it. Grau, production designer Nora Mendis, art director Kristina Porter, and set decorator Paige Mitchell all deserve acclaim for their parts in producing such a top-to-bottom cinematic marvel as this. Captured in deliberate, often stationary tableaus, academy-ratio format, and stark, high-contrast monochrome, Hall’s film carries a tone of quiet dignity like few others of this era, conjuring dramatic tensions and glamorous sequences of 1920s African-American joy with literary precision and refined maturity at every step. Comparisons with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War are likely to appear when the film is released wide; even against such a magnificent film as that, Passing is still the more ravishing piece of work. The film is not only marvelous to behold visually, but aurally as well, with an inviting atmosphere of detailed diegetic noise that is intermittently complemented by a luxurious score courtesy of Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange).

Just as captivating as the technical details, however, are the fabulous performances: Holland is his usual level of lovely, and Bill Camp delivers a welcome angle as Irene’s almost certainly gay socialite friend Hugh, himself an example of passing in a different sense. But it’s Thompson and Negga’s show, and they earn every bit of praise one can give a pair of performers. Thompson is tacit and contemplative where necessary, and revealing and ardent when heftier subjects are at hand. Negga is vivacious and hypnotic, but never gets ahead of the material: her Clare is just as ebullient as she is conflicted, and Negga brilliantly invites all sorts of interpretations with her every move, laugh, and glance of her eyes.

One early moment demonstrates the masterful complexity of each performer, Hall’s direction, and Larsen’s story itself. The day they re-encounter each other, Clare invites Irene to have a private drink in her suite. They are soon joined by John, who does not observe Irene closely enough to see past her pale facade. In a conversation reminiscent of Tom Buchanan’s bigoted rant on a similar subject in The Great Gatsby, John casually relays his deep-seated racism, and chuckles about his pet name for Clare: “nig.” He explains that she has inexplicably been seeming darker and darker since he first met her, and that he’s begun teasing her for it with this epithet. Her face framed in a tight close-up, Irene cannot contain her wide-eyed amusement, and laughs out loud at the irony before suppressing her reaction. Clare reacts with an immediate but subtle warning to keep silent; John doesn’t notice a thing, and the stage is set for a tightrope act of concealment, misdirection, and a delicate dance between these women’s shared, knowing perspectives. Hall lets each step of this dance play out beautifully, and I cannot recommend this exquisite experience highly enough — it is truly a revelation.

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