Passing, On Netflix, Is An Absorbing Tale Of Identity, Longing And Loss, Film Companion
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Director: Rebecca Hall
Writer: Rebecca Hall
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Alexander Skarsgård
Cinematographer: Eduard Grau
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Streaming on: Netflix

For a film based on deep, often unfulfilled yearnings, it’s only fitting that Passing unfolds like a dream. In Rebecca Hall’s immaculately rendered feature debut, set in monochrome 1920s New York, the camera pans are languid, the conversations unhurried and a gauzy soft focus envelops the frames. Protagonists Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga) let themselves get swept up in the fantasy because, as the film wastes no time establishing, the reality is too awful to contemplate.

The two Black women, former classmates, have been passing as White to varying degrees — Irene only on rare occasions, Clare for most of her life. When they run into each other again after 12 years, Clare has dyed her hair a platinum blonde, is superbly self-assured in White-dominated spaces people and carries herself proudly, unselfconsciously, as though she figured out a long time ago that the best way to belong is to act like you do. The only facet of her past life that she’s retained is the cadence of her laugh. Irene’s experience is very different. When she occupies White spaces, the absence of a score amplifies the snippets of conversation taking place around her. The buzzing of passersby chattering on the streets or whispering to each other at tea rooms convey her heightened sense of paranoia – how long before they realise that she doesn’t belong and she becomes the subject of their whispers? So she pulls the brim of her hat low and keeps her eyes downcast.

Irene, secure in her identity and a prominent organizer in Harlem’s Black community, is both transfixed, and appalled by the extent of Clare’s deception. And while Clare airily retorts that renouncing her Blackness has been “entirely worth the price”, the film gradually reveals how staggeringly high the cost is. Her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) is wealthy, but cruelly racist, and so she must pretend to be too. Despite wanting a son, she can never try for one for fear he’ll be born dark. The film introduces the threat of her carefully constructed identity coming undone, only to drop this thread for the most part in favour of another that binds the two women, and gradually comes perilously close to snapping.

While Clare longs for Irene’s company as a way of regaining some semblance of her past life, Irene envies the vivaciousness and freedom that Clare’s ruse brings her. Passing, with its simmering undercurrents of tension and longing, suggests that there’s even more to their equation. In one scene, Irene’s dart away nervously as she does up Clare’s buttons. In another, Clare writes to Irene of a “wild desire” that meeting her has sparked. Are the two women attracted to what the other has? Or just attracted to each other? It’s possible that their sexual identities are as malleable as their race, though the film stops short of confirming this. Frequently framed in mirrors, the women’s personalities begin to overlap even as their reflections don’t. Clare’s white-knuckle grip on a life that affords her security mirrors Irene’s refusal to talk about the lynchings of Black men at home so she can shield her sons from the ugliness of the world.

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The film’s boxed-in 4:3 aspect ratio adds to the intimacy of their tale, but also its claustrophobia, indicative of the rigidly constructed boundaries, whether societal or self-imposed, within which Irene and Clare operate. The thoughtful use of black-and-white cinematography reflects a world in which the characters’ decisions are anything but. Closeups of images such as a hairline crack in the ceiling and a pair of hands gripping a teapot effectively express the domestic disquiet that arises out of Irene suspecting that her husband (Andre Holland) is a little too fond of Clare. The film’s transition to a sleek marital drama is subtly executed, with Thompson and Negga as luminous scene partners, sparring and seducing in equal measure. Brittle and bruised, they convey volumes through tight smiles and sad eyes as they alternately draw and deflect the camera’s gaze.

Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, Passing skillfully plays with the fallibility of perception, that of the characters and the audience, culminating in a sequence that feels inevitable and yet tragically avoidable. Shot in the same hazy quality as the rest of the film, the effect it achieves is sobering instead – a beautifully shot reminder that even dreams can’t insulate against the ugliness of reality creeping in.

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