Rebecca Hall's directorial debut is an effective long-awaited adaptation
For mainstream audiences, it might seem that black voices are finally being heard in the art world after decades of toiling pioneers. However, black artists have been working for centuries, producing innumerous works in various mediums, but since then plagiarized or ignored by the mainstream. What’s changed today is that the powers of the art world are finally paying attention to these voices of the past and giving them their long-awaited slot of fame. Such is the case with the groundbreaking 1929 novel “Passing” by Nella Larsen, finally adapted into film.
Passing (2021) takes place in 1920s New York City. We follow Irene (Tessa Thompson) a satisfied wife of a doctor (Andre Holland) who enjoys being a cultural director of sorts of her Harlem neighborhood. One day, Irene bumps into a childhood friend she had lost track of for years, Claire (Ruth Negga). The point of tension between both, however, is that they are both light-skinned black women, and while Irene has remained within her black community, Claire has been able to “pass” as a white woman for much of her life; she’s even married an unaware white racist (Alexander Skarsgard).
Passing is the directing debut of actress Rebecca Hall, who blows audiences away with her grasp of visual metaphors and lighting. Hall understands the importance of the visual when adapting Passing, and thus does well to lean into the camerawork to do most of the thematic “talking.” All of Passing is in black and white, and framed in 4:3, much as the films from the 1920s. This not only adds a curious immersive touch to the period aspects, but adds to the explorations regarding colorism and claustrophobia that inhabit the narrative. Hall isn’t afraid to linger her camera on silent scenes either, or unhurriedly zoom her shots. This patience helps deliver her themes and stays true to Larsen’s source material. Regarding this latter part, what in a book may have been left for viewers to decide is sometimes “spoiled” in films that show everything. Hall is intelligent enough with her editing and staging that much of the interpretive and subjective elements from the book remain in the film, so viewers can come to their own conclusions regarding who harmed who or whether there is a homoerotic relationship underlying the central characters.
Hall, however, struggles when trying to compact Passing in a set narrative. While much of the story revolves around the central characters getting to know each other again, we don’t get nearly enough scenes of both together, and are instead left wandering with a captivating but slightly redundant Irene. This makes Passing drag slightly, so that even its hour and a half runtime can feel longer. However, this is made more amenable by the spectacular performances at the center.
Hall brings forth completely unexpected performances from her lead actresses. In fact, I would have expected the casting roles to be reversed; with Negga in the shier role and Thompson in the extroverted. By playing against the type, both actresses shine brighter than they otherwise would have. Negga brings forth a performance that seems to emulate and honor the style of female stars from the 1930s, giving her character an airy confident voice that was more characteristic of Katherine Hepburn. Passing, however, rests on Thompson’s shoulders as the main protagonist. By producing a much smaller and timid character, Thompson seems to fully step out of her comfort zone as a powerful bad ass. Her vulnerability in this film is such that she becomes a character much easier to empathize with, even if her plight is something some viewers will never be able to relate to. Thompson truly delivers the best performance of her career.
In the end, Passing is a rather impressive directorial debut. Hall brings forth a difficult adaptation and conversation with a pleasing mastery of her visual tools. The discourse that sprouts from the film and the choices the characters face regarding their blackness, is a truly fascinating subject to visit. Aided by two spectacular lead performances, Passing is a film you should not pass up.