Passing Review: Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga subtly deliver complex emotions in this drama on racial identity


Passing Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga

Passing Director: Rebecca Hall

Streaming Platform: Netflix

Passing Stars: 3.5/5

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In one of Passing’s most glorious scenes, Tessa Thompson’s Irene says “Things aren’t always what they seem” and it precisely translates the film’s core concept. First time director, Rebecca Hall takes upon herself the mighty task of adapting a literature that’s delicate as she bases her film on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel exploring racial identity. Led ably by leads, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, Hall’s Netflix film Passing is so well made that it could make for an exemplary piece on handling complex issues such as race in cinema with a deft hand. Whether it’s her gentle treatment of characters or the decision to present it shot in monochrome with clarity of thought and intelligence in terms of making it an impactful addition to works of cinema documenting black history.

Passing, in its very first moment, introduces us to Irene (Tessa Thomspon), who finds herself shopping in downtown New York from the 20s. She’s stealing gazes through the corner of her hat, discomforted in the presence of those around. At this point, Irene is in the other phase of her life, starkly different from her Harlem-based, life as that of the wife of Dr. Brian (Andre Holland) and a mother of two sons. During her ‘passing’ phase (pretending to use her lighter complexion to pass off as a white person), she enters an upscale hotel for a tea but much to Irene’s (Thompson) unease, she finds herself grabbing the attention of a white woman seated opposite to her. In the lieu of avoiding any confrontation, Irene begins to abruptly leave the restaurant, only to realise the woman staring from the other end is an acquaintance, an old friend Clare (Ruth Negga). Clare’s presence is unmissable but it’s the complete erasure of her black identity from her personality that leaves Irene in shock. Clare reveals that she has been passing off as a white person all her life and is now married to a rich white man, John (Alexander Skarsgard), who is unaware of her background. What turns out as dismay at first ends up becoming a strange allure yet point of discontent for Irene and Clare as both begin to get fascinated and envious of each other’s lives.

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Passing beautifully conveys feelings of anguish in the mere flutter of a Clare’s (Negga) eyes as on the outside she embodies the Hollywood glam but it’s the emptiness within that is seen in her vacant gazes. For Irene, it’s the fascination, the jealousy, the appeal of Clare that is inviting for her. At the helm of Passing, are two women searching for their lost racial identities in each other’s lives. Their physical appearances often contradict their mental choices.

While Clare (Negga) is a woman who has so deeply accepted her white identity that she doesn’t mind her husband referring to her with a racial slur, Irene, on the other hand, is a woman trying to create a false black narrative for her kids as she warns her husband to not reveal to them the harsh realities of lynchings and other atrocities faced by their community. It’s after their sudden reunion that the two women find themselves in a tougher situation as they yearn for what the other has and there are also hints made about Irene having a possible gay desire towards Clare.

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There are cracks on the bedroom wall at Irene’s home mirroring her strangely adequate but not a happy marriage with Brian. She’s a woman who has a standoffish relationship with her house help, Zu (Ashley Ware Jenkins), reflective of her belief in class treatment. Hall portrays the film to be Irene’s story. It’s her head we are inside and possibly the Clare that we see is also a perception of what Irene thinks of her. How does Irene see her? She (Clare) is someone who glows in the sunlight, she quickly becomes the center of attention at a party and when her presence starts to become threatening, almost bringing a sense of negativity in Irene’s life, like the heritage teapot that shatters into pieces at her home after accidentally slipping it, so does their friendship. Much of the film’s storytelling is suggestive with Hall relying on her brilliant cinematographer Eduard Grau to paint every scene laden with emotions. There are gorgeous backshots of Thompsons’ Irene being seated alone at parties, in the posh hotel and so on, that convey her feelings of aloofness, the loneliness caused by the walls she puts up on account of her dilemma and inability of self-acceptance.

While Thompson’s performance seems more emotive through her silent stares, her telling disregard for things, for Negga, it’s a physical act. She glides through the room as Clare. Her vivaciousness perfectly looks like a false identity, a garb that she puts on, and the actress showcases the same with sheer brilliance. The film is carried ably with the searing performances of both Negga and Thompson who act with strange ease even while conveying the most complex emotions. Watch out for a scene with Thompson’s painfully intense laugh as she reacts to Clare’s husband, John’s (Skarsgard) offensive joke and racist views about the black community.

Rebecca Hall may have some popular acting credits to her name but with this directorial debut, she carves herself a place among some of the finest upcoming filmmakers. From the warmth of the sunlight to the cold white snow, Hall’s direction captures the two women and their struggle over embracing their racial identity with a sensitive eye. There’s no “white saviour” element in this film. Hall is convincingly good in her role as a nuanced storyteller who recognises the delicate nature of the subject and its implications. At her expense are also some of the right people for the job, not only the lead stars but also in the music and costume department who do an incredible job.

Passing is a film that despite its heavy nature of subject, never puts on a garb of being anything other than a film that’s beautifully shot, told and performed. Its beauty lies in its visual storytelling and its ability to define tragedy without spelling it out.

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