Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Passing - Review

As each year passes, we get more and more actors turned director making their debuts. Next up: Rebecca Hall, a performer that carries such poise and grace, moves those talents behind the camera for this adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella. A compelling story on its own, it draws even more power from the talents of its director, the instinct for restraint from top to bottom, and the two commanding performances at its center. 

In 1920s New York City, a Black woman (Tessa Thompson) finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend (Ruth Negga) who's passing as white.

At the heart of Passing, there is the complexity of race. And yet, the film resists any temptation at overstating its themes and ideas. There are some undoubtedly overt moments. Clare’s husband, played by Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd, is nothing more than a stand-in for the racist and misogynistic attitudes of the time, as well as a representative for what happens if one is found out. However, those moments come few and far between, and what’s left are the best moments of the film. 

The drama plays out in the quieter moments, the spaces where the explicit subject of the material is not on full display. The suspense as Irene hides beneath a wide brimmed hat, frantically searching with her eyes for any signs of suspicion with her presence at an upscale hotel. The longing of each gaze between Clare and Irene, each carrying secrets and desires that neither share. It’s in this quiet restraint that director Rebecca Hall leaves her mark, crafting a profound story about identity and preservation. 

Set against a monochrome backdrop, the drama and suspense of this ruse is largely supported by the two performances at the center. Tessa Thompson has been great for a few years now, and Passing just serves to prove that. As Irene, Thompson is mesmerizing, a mysterious figure that the is often center frame and the audience’s point of view. But her counterpart is far and above the best aspect of the film. Ruth Negga gets the far more extroverted role as Clare. She’s a ball of fire, determined to always be near the center of attention, and yet, Negga plays it with weariness behind it all, as if she knows her ruse is slowly coming to an end.

Passing is a tremendous debut effort from director Rebecca Hall, whose decisions and style align more with those of a seasoned filmmaker than of one fresh on the scene. The film moves at a fast pace, seamlessly interweaving its existential questions and human drama with ease. It’s also just gorgeous to look at, with cinematography that’s simple but effective from Eduard Grau, the choice to shoot the film in black and white is inspired and only betters what was already pretty good to begin with. As far as directorial debuts go in 2021, Rebecca Hall has staked a claim as one of the best films on that list. 

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