Sundance 2021: Passing Review

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga beguile in Rebecca Hall's elegant directorial debut.

If Eugene Ashe’s sumptuous Sylvie’s Love didn’t convince you already, then the 1920s-set Passing will definitively prove that Tessa Thompson was born to play sophisticated characters from bygone eras of American society. Thompson shines opposite Ruth Negga in this handsomely mounted reflection on class and race, which marks the directorial debut for fellow actress Rebecca Hall. As its title suggests, the beguiling duo play a pair of Black women whose lighter skin allows them the complicated privilege of “passing” as white.

Hall adapts Passing from the 1929 novel written Nella Larsen, informed by her own mixed heritage. Its story takes place in New York, where the concurrent Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance brings a vibrant sense of possibility for the Black community. For Irene Redfield (Thompson), however, there is still much work to be done on behalf of African-Americans nationwide, a feeling shared by her disillusioned husband Brian (Andre Holland). Dedicated to the cause of the Negro Welfare League, Irene’s worldview is shaken during a chance encounter. Upon reconnecting with her former schoolmate Claire Kendry (Negga), Irene learns that the similarly light-skinned Claire has been living as a white woman, unbeknownst to her bigoted husband John (Alexander Skarsgård). When Claire suggests that Irene do the same, their random meeting sparks an subconscious obsession between the two women, as they try to better understand each other and themselves.

From the very first frame, Passing grabs your attention with its striking aesthetics. Most notably, the desaturated black-and-white cinematography and 4:3 aspect ratio recall both vintage photography and classic cinema. Meanwhile, the period-appropriate costumes and production design gives a strong sense of a time and place where the flappers were living their best life. And to add an elegant finishing touch, the intermittent piano refrain of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s “Homeless Wanderer” gives a further nod to the Jazz Age.

There’s no denying the beauty of the craft on display, though Hall’s stately direction and the restrained performances don’t quite offer fully immersive cinematic transportation to the past. Furthermore, the plot is curiously low on significant conflict. At times, the film therefore feels like an artifact to be studied, more than a vivacious representation of living human beings.

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But as they say, the devil’s in the details. Passing tingles through the vulnerability of Irene and Claire’s smallest gestures and experiences, delicately conveyed by Thompson and Negga and magnified by Eduard Grau’s judicious close-ups. A tear rolling down a cheek. The slight bow of a hatted head in the presence of a white man. A stolen glance of desire. Under the genteel mask these women show to the world lies a simmering unease about their true desires and place in the world. And it’s through this discomfort that Passing transcends its own mannered trappings to resonate as a poignant exploration of human psychology.

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