Pages Navigation Menu

"No matter where you go, there you are."


Sundance 2021 Review: Passing – “Shot with intense beauty and sophistication”

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson appear in Passing by Rebecca Hall, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Edu Grau.

Passing, the directorial debut from Rebecca Hall is based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen.  It tells the story of Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), two Black women who, with their lighter skin can “pass” as being white.  However, each woman lives on different sides of the colour line, Irene building a life in Harlem with her husband Brian (André Holland) and Clare choosing to pass for white, marrying a hateful racist, John (Alexander Skarsgård) who remains without knowledge of her racial identity.

Check out our Sundance Film Festival coverage

We meet Irene as she runs an errand downtown, trying to find a specific toy for her son’s birthday, a wide-brimmed hat partially covering her face as she completes her purchase in the white-owned toy store.  It’s obvious how uneasy this makes her as she hastily departs on this scorching hot afternoon.  Her taxi takes her to the tea room at The Drayton Hotel for some relief from the heat and it’s here where a blonde woman across the room makes eye contact.  She tries to ignore her but the woman makes her way over to the table and Irene discovers it is an old high school friend from Chicago, Clare, who is eager to catch up.

The women seem to have mutual surprise over the other’s current life, Irene realizing what Clare has given up and Clare thinking only of what she has gained, surprised that Irene wouldn’t choose the same.  But upon their reconnection Clare starts to insert herself into Irene’s life, rediscovering a culture she long left behind.  As Clare spends increasing amounts of time with Irene and her family and friends, lines are crossed, jealousies ignited, and each woman’s way of life is threatened.

Passing relies heavily on its two leads, Tessa Thompson playing Irene with discernible complexity.  Clare is seen entirely through Irene’s lens here, and Ruth Negga is vivacious and emotive, completely shining in every scene.  Director Rebecca Hall, who also adapted the screenplay, highlights the talents of her acting cast well in this debut.  But besides from the wonderful supporting cast, which also includes Bill Camp as a writer, New York City itself plays an important character in Hall’s film, the prohibition-era city shot with intense beauty and sophistication.

This, above all else, is where Hall’s debut completely shines.  Passing is as handsome a film as you will find.  Entirely in black and white, the director uses every ounce of light and shadow to her advantage.  Hall and cinematographer Edu Grau (A Single Man, Buried) confine their visuals to that square 4:3 aspect ratio, reminiscent of a different film era, yet also suits to bring focus to Thompson and Negga’s nuanced facial expressions.  Hall also pays specific attention to the sound design, each ambient noise methodical alongside a beautiful score courtesy of Devonté Hynes.

But for all its beauty and style, Passing seems to give up in substance, especially through its second act.  While Hall gives some clues to the sexual subtext beneath Irene and Clare’s relationship, the intensity and passion is never fully developed.  It’s where I wish I had some familiarity with the original subject material (something I aim to remedy) so I can understand more about the intriguing relationship between these two women. This is a film that likely takes multiple viewings to fully take in and explore.  On this viewing it missed its emotional mark for me, I felt as ambiguous about Passing as Clare and Irene’s relationship.  Though if Rebecca Hall is staring a directorial debut with something this ambitious I am happy to be along for the ride.  What a beautiful ride it is likely to be.

Previous PostNext Post


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.