NOTE: This review was previously part of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Passing opens in select theaters on October 25th, followed by Netflix streaming on November 10th.
Having starred in her share of Sundance films already, Rebecca Hall returns to Park City with Passing, a delicately-told, passionate, and complex drama about mixed-race women in 1920s Harlem. An adaptation of the book by Nella Larsen, herself a woman of color who based some of the details on her own experiences, the film stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in what is a true actor’s showcase.
Unsurprising that Hall, a refined dramatic actress with her own mixed-heritage background, would be attracted to this material. The story, boiled down from Larsen’s intertwining narrative, centers on Irene “Rene” Redfield (Thompson) and Clare Kendry Bellew (Negga). The film begins with two well-to-do white women talking amongst themselves. The first word that emerges clearly is a slur, “pickaninny”, and one drops such a doll on the ground. It’s Rene who picks it up to be helpful. The women don’t seem to recognize that she is a Black woman. Rene is dressed much like them, surely she must be white. Later, having lunch at a luxury hotel, Rene becomes uncomfortable at the white people around her. Are they looking at her? Do they suspect? Why is this one woman staring at her so intently?
The other woman, a striking beauty, is Clare, someone she has not seen in nearly a decade. Rene is careful not to confirm anything at first, but Clare is the opposite. She’s outspoken, drawing attention to herself, to them. We soon learn she’s done something quite incredible. Clare has passed herself as white so perfectly as to attract her wealthy white husband, John Bellow (Alexander Skarsgard), and had a child with him. The poor Harlem neighborhood, and the people in it, are a thing of the past for Clare.
And yet, this fabrication that is Clare’s “pale life” seems to have lost its luster. Passing explores two Black women on opposite ends of the color line, but it’s more complicated than that. Rene, no slouch at passing as white herself, has a happy home with her doctor husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two sons. They struggle, however, and race plays no small part. We’re often left to wonder if Rene holds any jealousy towards her friend, and if so, is it for her beauty and room-filling personality? Or because of the burden of race that she’s freed herself from?
Hall, who also adapted the screenplay herself, isn’t holding our hands through any of it. As Clare burrows her way deeper into Rene’s life, she begins to crowd her old friend out, even drawing Brian’s attention. Brimming with more than tangled issues of race, a homoeroticism lurks just beneath the surface. Both Clare and Rene have compartmentalized the things about themselves they don’t want people to see, and it goes much further than skin deep.
There’s a classic Hollywood feel that Hall brings to Passing, aided by Devanté Hyne’s subtle piano score. If it moves along a bit slowly, and is so gentle it struggles to hold so much emotional weight, Hall recalibrates by leaning on her two stars. Thompson has the more difficult role, having to portray Rene’s fragile dignity, which only cracks further as Clare becomes a larger-than-life figure in her household. Negga plays Clare with an unquenchable thirst for attention, wherever she can get it. Being with Rene and her friends in Harlem has freed her to be the person she used to be, to enjoy the things being married to a racist white man held back.
But can one ever really go home again? Hall, who has always brought maturity and depth of knowledge to her work in front of the camera, proves with Passing that she will do the same as a filmmaker.