Passing (4 stars)

Passing

Ruth Negga as Clare in Passing

Rebecca Hall's directorial debut is a provocative and visually impactful study of racial identity

Actress Rebecca Hall makes her mark on the filmmaking map with a personal and formally audacious tale of shame, secrecy and racial tension, which follows two fascinating females as they rekindle their deliciously strange relationship. Based on Nella Larsen's 1929 novel with a screenplay by Hall herself, it delves into the titular phenomenon, which saw light-skinned African-Americans attempt to 'pass' for white, following two childhood friends who meet as adults only to find their paths have dramatically diverged.

Set in prohibition-era New York City, it stars Tessa Thompson as Irene, the biracial well-to-do wife of African-American doctor Brian (André Holland), who lives in a smart Harlem townhouse. We see her passing for white in a toyshop at the outset, peering nervously from beneath the brim of her glamorous hat. When she spots an old schoolfriend, Clare (Ruth Negga), doing the same but with a great deal more confidence at a fancy hotel a mutual obsession is born, with the women both beguiled and repelled by each other's choices and forced to examine their own sense of self, with discomforting results. The now-blonde Clare has taken passing to the extreme, trading Black for white society entirely, with her racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) unaware of her true ethnicity. Forcing her way into Irene and Brian's life, Clare dives back into Black culture with reckless abandon.

Given the optics of a white writer-director taking on such a sensitive subject and adapting an important Black work, it's worth saying that Hall's mother is the American opera singer Maria Ewing, who is of African-American and Native American ancestry through her father, and Hall has spoken of the specific relevance of her grandfather's story here. Going bold from the off, Hall's first film has been shot by cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man) in rather striking and expressive black and white, with the cast emulating the more breathy and melodramatic acting style of early Hollywood. Such elements work well with the themes; the latter adding extra layers of performance and artifice and the former allowing the actresses to pass in scenes which emphasise the blinding whiteness and exclusivity of Caucasian neighbourhoods. It's also been filmed in a reduced 4:3 aspect ratio, imprisoning its characters both in the frame and their predicament and once again evoking the cinema of the era.

Bearing in mind the distancing effect of such hyper-stylisation, whether this allows for a full emotional exploration of the material is up for debate; Passing feels more successful intellectually and no doubt some of the decision-making can be a little on the nose – the use of snowfall in the film's closing scenes for example. But Hall has presented the material in refreshingly knotty and visually impactful fashion and these complicated women are beautifully brought to life by the actresses in question, with their semi-sexual and destructive dynamic absolutely mesmerising to behold.

Available to watch in cinemas from Friday 29 October and on Netflix from Wednesday 10 November.

Passing

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • UK / US
  • 1h 38min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Rebecca Hall
  • Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga

Passing follows the unexpected reunion of two high school friends, whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities.