14th Nov2023

Rewind: ‘Passing’ Review

by James Rodrigues

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Alexander Skarsgård, André Holland | Written by Rebecca Hall, Nella Larsen | Directed by Rebecca Hall

After a career delivering tremendous performances, Rebecca Hall steps behind the camera for her feature debut as writer/director. Unfolding in black-and-white from the opening logos, the story begins with muffled voices and smudged visuals before things become clearer, and viewers witness Passing unfold in a 4:3 aspect ratio. While these visual choices give this film a unique identity, it also reflects the story as the boxier frame captures the characters’ constraints, while the monochrome look reflects how nothing is black and white with the characters.

In 1920s New York City, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) has a chance encounter in a hotel dining room with childhood friend, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga). While both are light-skinned Black women, Clare “passes” as white to the point that her wealthy white husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård) does not know the truth.

Once believing that the right thing to do was disregard her side that society looks down upon, Clare puts up with her husband’s racist remarks to maintain the façade. Those feelings are complicated upon seeing Irene, leaving Clare questioning her previous beliefs and becoming enamoured with the lifestyle she previously shunned. Negga exceptionally captures the character’s joy in reconnecting with her roots, while masking her discomfort regarding the consequences if the truth got out.

While Irene claims to be satisfied with her life, Thompson tremendously captures the stirring feelings emerging from Clare’s reappearance. While she has felt safe at her home and at home helping her community, her best intentions cannot keep out the world’s horrors. Her hopes to shield her sons from harsh realities cannot stop outside interference, and leave the mother at odds with husband, Brian (André Holland), who wishes to educate their sons about unfortunate truths.

Effectively accompanying this gently paced tale are piano keys playing on the score, capturing the characters’ inner turmoil. While the story could dig deeper regarding “passing”, what remains is a gently paced tale about people trying to disguise themselves as something entirely different from who they are. Considering this was a Netflix exclusive release, it is a saddening sign of the times that the film has been taken off the streaming service in the UK and remains unavailable to watch. Considering Film4 was one of the backers, here is hoping that Passing becomes more widely available to watch, particularly with a physical media release.

***½  3.5/5


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