Passing is a striking and provocative first feature that signals the arrival of a major new directing talent.

Sundance Film Review: Passing

Film Reviews

Director: Rebecca Hall

AUM Group and Film4
Premiere: Jan. 30th 4:00 p.m.

The art of black-and-white photography has endured long after the creation of color photos, because there are certain qualities that it possesses, some tangible and some intangible. In her directorial debut, Passing, Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Town) utilizes both kinds to astounding, gorgeous effect, and adds “metaphorical” to the list.

An adaptation of Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 Harlem Renaissance novella, Passing follows Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson, Creed, Sylvie’s Love), a refined, upper-class 1920s woman who finds breezy refuge from a hot summer day in the grand tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel. Across the room, she spots a blond woman staring her down. Irene wants to steal away, but before she can, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga, Loving, Ad Astra) rushes over to stop her. It turns out the two were in high school together, and while both are African American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now, a new connection forms between them that alternates between kinship, sympathy, jealousy and resentment, and their renewed acquaintance becomes a threat to them both.

Hall really goes for broke here, making her freshman effort a visually complex and technically challenging film that still manages to put characters and themes front and center. I’m huge fan of Tessa Thompson, and when I first heard about this film I found it far fetched to think anyone could mistake her for being white. But through the magic of black-and-white cinematography and intricately designed lighting, cinematographer Eduard Grau not only make that plausible, they very subtly accentuate the skin tone of both of their leading ladies in either direction, making them darker or lighter depending on the context of the scene, while Hall plays with shades of gray both in the morality and motivations of her characters and in her visual scheme. She also daringly chose to shoot in a boxy 1:1 aspect ratio that adds greatly to both the period feel and to the conveyance of both women’s increasing feeling that their worlds are closing in on them. 

The acting is impeccable, and Negga makes as strong an impression as Hall, playing the character of the young woman of color masquerading as a Gatsby blond so convincingly that her first scene is genuinely disorienting. Both Thompson and Negga are mesmerizing every step of the way, giving performances that balance the internal with external with what appears to be ease, but is of course a combination of talent and hard work from three very skilled actresses (Hall being the third). André Holland (Moonlight, The Eddy), a personal favorite of mine, is terrific as Irene’s doctor husband, a man who is so tired of living with racism and so worried about the future of their two sons that he wants to move to South America. Alexander Skarsgård is chilling as Clare’s clueless and very racist husband, and Bill Camp (The Queen’s Gambit) is perfect as a pompous author who figures out Clare’s secret. The screenplay, written by Hall, is sharp witted and well structured, and Hall has a great feel for when to rely on dialogue and when to let facial expressions and body language do the talking. 

Passing is a striking and provocative first feature that signals the arrival of a major new directing talent. –Patrick Gibbs