Passing marks the directorial debut of actor, Rebecca Hall (she also wrote the script), and it’s a project that’s been in gestation for more than a decade, inspired by her first reading of Nella Larsen’s source novel. Hall, it turns out, has some experience of the subject matter. Her own grandfather, a light-skinned African-American, often passed himself of as white back in his youth and so, to Hall, the book consequently felt like his story. Set in the 1920s and evocatively filmed by Eduard Grau in (appropriately enough) black and white, Passing unfolds its story at a sedate pace. For once, I don’t find myself grumbling about having to watch this on a small screen, because the film is intimate and compelling enough to hold my attention throughout.
Rene (Tessa Thompson) is a well-to-do Black woman, the wife of successful doctor, Brian (André Holland). Rene occasionally passes herself of as white in order to gain access to the ritzy New York hotels and restaurants she likes to frequent, and that’s what she’s doing when we first encounter her. Sitting in a swish dining room, she is astonished to be greeted by a white woman as though she’s an old friend. Except this isn’t a white woman: it’s her old school chum, Clare (Ruth Negga), who she hasn’t seen in years and who has taken the art of ‘passing’ to the extreme. With her elaborately coiffed blonde hair and carefully rehearsed mannerisms, Clare has erased all traces of her former self. What’s more, she is now married to successful white businessman, John (Alexander Skarsård), who – it turns out – is a bluntly spoken racist, and has no idea about Clare’s origins.
Understandably horrified, Rene excuses herself and tries to forget the encounter, but soon learns that Clare is not a character who’s ready to be conveniently brushed under the carpet. It’s not long before she turns up at Rene’s house and begins to inveigle her way into her former friend’s life, charming Rene’s husband, her two boys, her maid and just about everyone else she is introduced to. Only Rene’s writer-friend, Hugh (Bill Camp), seems to see through her meticulously rehearsed charm-school routines. But then, as a novelist, he’s well attuned to the concept of spinning stories.
As Clare exerts her hold over Rene’s world, so Rene begins to perceive an unspoken threat that lies behind her old friend’s vacuous smile…
This is an accomplished film is so many ways. I love the ambiguity of it. Seen entirely from Rene’s point of view, we’re never entirely sure if Clare really is the threat she appears. Could it be that she has been acting a part for so long, she’s no longer conscious of how avariciously she presents herself? She clearly hankers after the kind of life her deception has denied her – but how far would she be willing to go to reclaim it? Are Rene’s fears merely a product of her mounting paranoia?
Nothing here seems set in stone; indeed, even the film’s tragic conclusion leaves us with many unanswered questions.
Thompson is terrific as the troubled Rene, and Negga wonderfully enigmatic as Clare. The era is convincingly evoked and it’s so refreshing to see a cinematic story about the pervasiveness of racism, even for those Black people not living in grinding poverty. My only issue with the film is the overuse of a jazz-inflected piano motif, which, though appropriate for the 1920s, becomes an irritating ear worm by the time I’ve heard it for the fifteenth time. It’s a minor quibble.
Passing is a fascinating story, effectively told and what’s more, as a debut feature, it’s no mean achievement.