The trend of actresses turning directors has taken over independent cinema in the past few years, with the likes of Regina King, Greta Gerwig, and Olivia Wilde achieving success with their first films. Passing, directed by Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), is yet another project of this kind. However, unlike most debuts, it is one with a clear and sublime directorial vision, resulting in a highly creative and unconventional adaptation.
Based on a 1929 Nella Larsen novel of the same title, Passing premiered to great reception at Sundance and has since become one of this year’s critic darlings. All this is to no surprise, as it is one of the most original commentaries on racism in American film in recent years.
Set in a 1920s New York over an unspecified period of time, the story follows two childhood friends who, after bumping into each other in a teahouse, reconnect after many years apart. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is married with two children, and has as good of a life as a black woman in the 1920s US could have. With her husband working as a doctor, she is financially comfortable and even able to afford a house maid. She’s a prominent figure in the local Black community, organising events and attending numerous parties.
Clare (Ruth Negga) on the other hand, chose a different life path. Having relatively light skin for a person of colour, she decided to try to pass for a white person. She built her whole identity around pretending to be white, trying to forget her upbringing and cultural heritage. She has a white, racist, affluent husband who, however ridiculous that might sound, has no idea he’s married a black woman.
Clare’s accidental encounter with Irene, only a mere catching-up type of conversation between old friends, changes something in her. Even though she has the life that she wanted, she struggles to remain truly satisfied. She is lonely even in her happiness, or more accurately in what she convinces herself to be happiness.
After the encounter, Clare begins to invite herself more and more into her long-lost friend’s life. By spending time with her, meeting her black friends, and joining them in various black parties, she gradually reclaims the part of her identity that she had given up all those years ago.
Although the premise of a woman reclaiming her identity through renewing an old friendship sounds charming, Passing is replete with a heavy atmosphere and is full of dark layers. Clare’s charm and beauty make her an object of desire for all men around her, as well as an object of envy of Irene. Clare effortlessly flirts with Irene’s husband, who, just like every other man in the film, seems to be under her spell. There even seems to be some sexual tension between her and Irene, but it might only be a result of this double-sided admiration and jealousy.
Feeling threatened by Clare’s increasing presence in her everyday life, Irene tries to escape the friendship, to no success. From that point, Passing feels like a psychological home invasion thriller of some kind. Clare is slowly taking over Irene’s life, constantly turning up at her house unannounced, enjoying her husband’s company, and stealing all the affection that was once Irene’s.
The ominous atmosphere of unpredictability and mystery doesn’t have its roots solely in the masterful screenwriting, but is brought to life by the film’s outstanding technicalities. Shot in black and white and in 4:3 aspect ratio, every scene is able to capture and highlight its emotional load by the way it is constructed with close-ups and contrasts.
Tessa Thompson’s acting resonates with the camerawork to create one of the best performances of the year. Rich in subtlety, with Irene’s constant dilemmas noticeable in Thompson’s eyes and body language, the performance is deserving of every award it could receive.
With a clear and unique directorial vision, powerhouse acting, and intellectual depth, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is the kind that every aspiring filmmaker should dream of.
Although it deals with the topic of racism and racial identity in a truly unique way, the brilliance of Passing lies in the fact that it does not stop there. It uses the social tensions deriving from the racial struggles to form a thrilling story of universal attraction and jealousy. Because as Tessa Thompon’s character puts it, “we’re all passing for something or other. Aren’t we?”
Passing was released on Netflix on the 10th of November.