A few minutes into Passing, Ruth Negga appears. She’s Clare Kendry, who is in New York accompanying her husband (Alexander Skaarsgaard) on a business trip when she spots an old friend Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) in the lobby of the Drayton Hotel. Resplendent in 1920s garments, blond hair and a mischievous smile on her face, Negga’s the cat that ate the canary personified on screen. Over the next few minutes she flirts with, cajoles and charms Irene into visiting her suite, staying and having drinks despite Irene being very uncomfortable. Irene can’t resist Clare and we in the audience cannot take our eyes off Negga for a second for fear of missing a gesture or a look. This is a performance so electrifying it demands attention from the very first second the character appears.
Passing, adapted from Nella Larsen’s novel and directed by Rebecca Hall, is the story of these two light skinned Black women living during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Irene occasionally passes for white for convenience. To take refuge in a cool hotel lobby during a heatwave. Clare passes for white all the time, she’s married to white man who doesn’t know she’s Black. When Clare moves to New York she decides to revive her friendship with Irene despite the latter’s discomfort with her lies and way of living. But close they become, as Clare longs to spend more time among Black people.
Larsen’s novel is rich with themes about identity and race. About the masks people put on and take off to survive. The relationship between Irene and Clare is complex. Do they like each other? Are they jealous of each other? Does Irene want Clare’s daring and carefree attitude? Clare seems to covet Irene’s sense of purpose and satisfaction with her lot in life. Hall threads the very fine line of including as much as she can from the source while not overwhelming the film. More often than not, she holds back rather than spell out anything. Her script is so subtle demanding the audience pay attention. Not to the words the characters are saying but rather to the performances the actors are giving.
And in Thompson, and particularly Negga, Hall hits pay dirt. Thompson holds the film together with grounded feeling as she’s in every scene. Irene is a woman who doesn’t say much, who holds her cards close to her chest. Thompson manages to convey her inner turmoil with understated panache. Negga comes in with reckless abandon and steals the film. This is a showstopping performance. She conveys the utter chaos of the character while maintaining the actor’s exacting control. Negga drops her voice when needed to amplify a point. She looks straight into the camera to throw off the audience from the conclusions we thought we made about the narrative and her character.
Everytime Negga looked at Thompson I thought to myself, “does she want to fuck her or kill her?” That sexual subtext was in the book but it’s more overt in the movie because of the performances. These women are clearly drawn to each other. They might want to trade places. The way they look at each and sometimes touch, they definitely feel a sexual charge. What I wish the movie had more of is the feel for Harlem in the 1920s. This is more a chamber piece set in a few rooms and hallways, concentrating on a few characters.
I am also conflicted about the use of black and white. On one hand making a film about colorism and draining it of color seems strange. Yet the film looks gorgeous and the actresses would not have “passed” to modern eyes if not for the black and white cinematography. Aesthetically it’s definitely the right choice as it fits with the other austere and deliberate choices Hall makes. From her sparse script to the intimate atmosphere that’s all inside Irene’s mind.
Passing is a confident, sometimes bold, directorial debut for Hall. It is also Ruth Negga’s most magnetic moment on screen. And for that it’s well worth cherishing.