Director: Rebecca Hall

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

It’s always interesting when an actor turns their hand to directing. Passing is Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut and is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. Set in 1920s Harlem, it follows two mixed-race childhood friends when they meet by chance in a white-dominated Manhattan area after many years apart. They both now live fairly comfortable middle-class lives in adulthood, but Irene (Tessa Thompson) still identifies as African-American while Clare (Ruth Negga) is ‘passing’ as white.

Clare is delighted by this unexpected reunion whereas Irene is ambivalent. Irene’s disquiet is anchored when she meets Clare’s wealthy white husband (Alexander Skarsgård, who else could there be to play a truly despicable man and husband?) who wastes no time in demonstrating his hideous racist opinions. He doesn’t just dislike Black people, he hates them. He expresses these views casually, because Irene herself can passively pass as white. Remember, this is Manhattan, and Irene wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the lavish tearoom where she bumps into Clare. It’s obvious that if this gathering had included Irene’s Black husband (André Holland) and children, the show of civility would be rather different.

With a 4:3 aspect ratio, sharp black and white colour palette and objectively stunning costumes, Passing certainly looks the part of a Harlem Renaissance adaptation. Thompson and Negga also put in sterling performances as the two protagonists, skirting around the emotional awkwardness of a friendship fraught with moral ambiguity. However, besides the stilted script and vagueness surrounding Irene’s sexuality (a fundamental feature in the source material), a glaring issue with this film is the pacing. Clare is drawn back to Irene through loneliness and desperation to reclaim a part of herself she chose to leave behind to pursue wealth and social standing.
The progression from their first meeting through to their increased interaction in Irene’s townhouse and then final act plods along without addressing any of the glaring questions about who Clare is to Irene and vice versa, or how their husbands play pivotal roles in their identities. The closing scene is incredibly rushed and you are left wondering why things came to pass in such a way, given the sparse context and emotional involvement.

The script does little to provide substance to how any of the characters are feeling at any point throughout the film. Silence can often be a powerful method to demonstrating discontent and Thompson subtly shows how the growing unease of Irene’s internal monologue starts to afflict her physically and mentally. However, the moments of quietness are generally not complemented by any kind of narrative progression or development. For example, there isn’t enough polarity between the friends’ domestic deference, particularly the contrast between Irene’s sense of duty to her family and Clare’s eagerness to be away from her husband at any given opportunity.
The subject matter is brave and interesting, and in writing, directing and producing Passing, Hall has shown great promise as a filmmaker. It’s just a shame it doesn’t offer much more than superficial tension and elegance.