A promising debut, Passing – Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s beloved Harlem Renaissance novel – is a stylish but shy accomplishment.
Rendered in tastefully appropriate Black and White, we are introduced to Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), two light-skinned mixed-race childhood friends who cross paths in a luxurious Manhattan hotel while passing for White – for Irene a momentary convenience, but for Clare a way of life.
After passing in front of Clare’s repulsively racist husband John, played convincingly by Alexander Skarsgård, Irene tries to avoid Clare for their own safety. But after a glimpse of Irene’s comfortable middle-class life, Clare ingratiates herself into the lives of the Redfield’s and Harlem’s 1920’s cultural scene. Throughout, Hall orchestrates a static, eerie tone that at times feels contradictory to what we know of the period.
Where discussions on the liminality of race, class, and sexuality are presented in the first half of the film and ever-present in the novel, Hall chooses to immerse us in Irene’s psyche, trespassing into psychological thriller territory. Anchored in the suspicion that her handsome, dejected husband Dr Brian Redfield, played with reliable magnetism by Andre Holland, is having an affair with the incandescent Clare, Irene becomes increasingly anxious with jealousy until the film's climax.
The chemistry between Thompson and Negga, as well as Negga and any one of her screen partners, is captivating enough to enthral an audience throughout. However, the reluctance to tackle the complex ideas touched on in the beginning – how one can be complicit in and advance their own subjugation, the disguise of one’s self for the illusion of safety, what it means to be both voyeur and object – means Hall’s restrained, elegant direction and the stellar performances are underserved.
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