Most actors making their feature directorial debut tend to focus on, well, other actors—and it’s certainly the case that Passing, the feature debut for the wonderful actress Rebecca Hall, is attuned to the performers at its center. Hall, who can bring a sense of gravity to even the cheerfully ridiculous likes of Godzilla vs. Kong, here gets to work with a pair of performers with similarly assured-yet-grounding talent: Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, playing childhood friends who unexpectedly reunite as adults in 1920s New York City. Irene (Thompson), nicknamed “Reenie,” is married to Brian (André Holland), has two young children, and is firmly ensconced in the upper middle class. Clare (Negga) is married, too—to a man who has no idea that she, like Reenie, is Black. Both Reenie and Clare are light-skinned enough to “pass,” and while Reenie has episodes where she allows incorrect assumptions about her race, Clare has made a whole life out of pretending to be white.
It’s rich material for two talented actors, but Hall shows formal ambition in the story’s telling, too. She shoots in boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in high-contrast black-and-white, blasting and fuzzing out the whiter patches of the image—which makes the skin tones look grayer by comparison. But the black-and-white isn’t used only for skin-tone effects; it’s complemented by a retro-movie formality to the characters’ dialogue, which, especially in the early scenes, has a pleasurable, lilting exactitude. The first reunion of Reenie and Clare has a volleying musicality; it could be a play in miniature. “I live in Harlem…still,” Reenie says by way of catching her friend up, and Thompson knows how to emphasize that line just so, balancing politeness on the sharper point beneath it.
Clare does not seem to be especially taken with her husband John (Alexander Skarsgård, doing what amounts to a Bad White Guy cameo), whose racist ability to see what he wants to see allows him to presume whiteness in his bride. She seems to enjoy both the freedom that their marriage affords her, and reconnecting to her roots by spending time in Harlem with Reenie and Brian. Reenie is both excited and discomfited by her friend’s attention, but, the movie makes clear, engages in her own, more subtle form of passing: As a doctor’s wife, dabbling in charity work and employing a maid, she’s doing a simulation of white-coded respectability. Brian is more aggressive about the possibility of leaving this racist country and educating their children about its history, while Reenie sees no reason to harm what they’ve built: “I want them to stay happy,” she says.
Much of this is well-wrought, and certainly well-acted by Thompson and the more opaque, mysterious Negga. (The movie is firmly lodged in Reenie’s point of view; we don’t know much more about what Clare is thinking than Reenie does.) Yet for all of the movie’s clean, bold style and strong performances, there’s ultimately something more than a little hemmed-in about its well-ordered tastefulness. This is where the actor/director stereotypes sink in. Around the halfway mark, the movie starts to feel more like a character study that keeps zeroing in tighter on the same conflicts: Reenie’s jealousy, Reenie’s desire for respectability and Clare’s opacity by comparison. Hall is adapting the novel by Nella Larsen, and even without reading the source material, the movie feels like a novel adaptation, building to a brief yet inevitable climax that changes everyone’s lives forever, straight out of literary fiction.
On the page, this kind of confrontation can feel like the externalization of so much internal tension. On screen, Hall doesn’t quite find a way into it—a way to make it feel a bit more spontaneous, a bit more lifelike, and less like the fulfillment of narrative requirements. After establishing the characters with such elegance and grace, the movie proceeds to nudge them toward an endpoint that is beautifully shot but curiously chilly, lacking the catharsis of something more old-fashioned. There’s strain in the movie’s restraint, frozen as it is between the melodrama of the past and the fire of the present.
Director: Rebecca Hall
Writer: Rebecca Hall
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Alexander Skarsgård
Release Date: October 27, 2021
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.