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  • Adam Carr

Passing (2021) Review

"Passing" is the brilliant directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall. Ms. Hall adapted the film from the novel of the same name written by Nella Larsen. It's the story of two African American women, childhood friends, living in the 1920's New York City who run into each other after not seeing each other for several decades. Tessa Thompson is Irene who's able to pass for a white woman under her 20's apparel which allows her entrance into a hotel as she seeks refuge from the heat. As she cools off she spots Clare, who's light skin affords her access into white institutions, one of which happens to be marriage. Claire is married to a white man (Alexander Skarsgard) and has infiltrated a world that's forbidden to both her and Irene.

Rebecca Hall directing Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga

Irene has the life she wants and claims to be content in. She works to keep her world in order and refuses to let any threats, from a white world meant to do her arm, from penetrating her life. The reintroduction of Claire into her life threatens all of this. Ms. Hall has created a story of which questions identity, social norms and perceptions of what we think is a normal world.

Clare and Irene are a study in contrasts. While Irene has built her life around what she believes is a secure life Clare is after all that she desires. Is she a gold-digger, a survivor or does she just live her life, unafraid of consequences or judgements? Content with what she believes is the perfect life, successful and in a well to do family within a group that society was built to suppress, Irene ignores Clare. She sees Claire as a threat. But a threat against what? Claire breaks through the norms set up to keep African Americans "contained." Clare allows the whites around her to think she is one of them, creating a white family and benefiting from the amenities that such a standing comes with. Not hearing from Irene after sending her several letters explaining the emotional effect Irene had on her, she drops in on Irene's home unannounced. There she integrates into Irene's life.

Tessa Thompson in "Passing"

Ms. Thompson is a steady force. She invokes Irene with a sense of purpose and protectiveness who goes about her business, head down (literally), to avoid trouble. She has the life she always wanted and, as she states, is content. But when Clare invades her space Ms. Thompson, with each passing scene, shows a woman who knows her world is slowly crumbling around her and is looking for some way to stop it. It's a subtle performance but emanates the sense of panic building up in Irene.

Ms. Negga continues her ideal choice in characters. In Clare she is an antagonist with a well of mystery. Is she invasive? Does she want to enjoy a life she left behind when she "passed" for white? As you can tell there are many questions when it comes to Clare. Ms. Hall doesn't attempt to answer them which is in service to the film. The answers are unclear but her invasion of Irene's household and her refusal to concede to the norms of the time are a fuse that slowly decimates the tranquility of Irene's life. Watching Ms. Negga light that fuse is one of the pleasures of this year's movie going experience.

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in "passing"

Ms. Hall is aided by Eduard Grau's ("A Single Man," "The Gift," "The Way Back") cinematography. Filmed in black and white, the film started off looking as though its story was being told with photos of that era. Beautifully done but not using any of the shadows black and white can so brilliantly enrich the mood of any story. Even the very first encounters of Irene and Clare are overexposed in white giving a look from a 20's contemporary art gallery. But as the film wore on so too did those whites and the shadows grew darker along with Irene's persona. "Passing" is a great study on how to use cinematic techniques to aid in building mood. And it's one of the best films of 2021.


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