An unusually stylistically ambitious and thematically thorny film for an actor-turned-director to take on, Passing marks the first time behind the camera for Rebecca Hall, and it’s a mostly auspicious, if uneven, debut that suggests a wickedly smart filmmaking mind, albeit one that’s still finding its feet. A black-and-white drama in an oppressively close-cropped aspect ratio, Passing tackles taboos of race, gender, sexuality, and class with little fear, making for an intriguing film in its own right, not to mention one that suggests a very bright future as writer-director for Hall.
Adapting the novel by Nella Larsen – and partly inspired by Hall’s own family history of her biracial grandfather ‘passing’ as white – Passing places us a sweltering New York summer in 1929, where a reunion between two old school friends stirs up a storm of complicated feelings. These friends are Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Claire (Ruth Negga), both light-skinned Black women, but kept separate now by the fact that Claire is passing for white – to the point that she’s married to a viciously racist white man, John (Alexander Skarsgard), with whom she’s even had a daughter.
Irene, meanwhile, lives in Harlem with her Black husband Brian (Andre Holland), a politically astute doctor who wants to move abroad to a country where his skin colour will leave him and his family less vulnerable. At their first, tentative, reunion Irene and Claire are each struck with a mix of envy and resentment for the other, seeing freedom in the lives they could have tried for, a mix made more potent by the pangs of queer longing that clearly pass between them. As Claire becomes more involved in Irene’s life, this initial tension simmers down, but every scene between them still thrums with unanswered questions and desires that sometimes move you and sometimes set your teeth on edge.
These two moods don’t always gel satisfyingly, but you sense the muddle is at least part of the point in a film about two women realising that they may not know themselves as well as they thought they did. Thompson and Negga both play out these internal conflicts brilliantly, and Negga in particular is unforgettable, exuding Old Hollywood glamour in every glance and movement. The messy third act, completed by an ending that just sort of happens without a real emotional pull, lets the performances down a little, but this is otherwise probably career-best work from each lead.
Along with the ending, there are a few other moments that betray Passing as a debut film, with some of the shots and stylistic choices feeling mannered and self-conscious, and there’s an argument to be made that it ends up as just slightly less than the sum of its parts. Yet, this is still a mostly compellingly made film with important things to say that very few other films bother to tackle. If nothing else, it’s a remarkable piece of evidence that Hollywood needs to make it an immediate priority to make at least one black-and-white film with Ruth Negga every year.