Sundance Review: Passing

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing by Rebecca Hall.

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.

Cate Blanchett as Hela in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

In this episode we discuss another Cate Blanchett foray into playing a villian in a big blockbuster; as Hela the goddess of death in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Other topics discussed include the Marvel cinematic universe, who’s the best Chris and Taika Waititi’s singular comedic vision. Hosted by Murtada Elfadl  with guest writer and critic Joi Childs, host of The Color Grade podcast.

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Follow along, the film is streaming on Disney +.

What is the film about?

From IMDB:  Imprisoned on the planet Sakaar, Thor must race against time to return to Asgard and stop Ragnarök, the destruction of his world, at the hands of the powerful and ruthless villain Hela.

When did it come out?

November 3, 2017.

Who does Cate play?

Hela, The Asgardian goddess of death. Hela also happens to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first major female villain.

How is Cate introduced?

About 20 minutes into the film, freed from prison after Odin dies. She immediately destroys Thor’s hammer Mjolnir.

Box Office: Domestic = $315,058,289   Int’l = $538,918,837

Metacritic :74                   RT: 93

Cate’s movement and walk prove how great a physical performer she is

Topics discussed:

  • General impression on Marvel films. Where does Thor: Ragnarok rank?
  • Marvel villains. Have they solved their problem with Hela, Thanos and Killmonger? Or perhaps they never had a villain problem?
  • Cate is usually great when going full camp. Does she go far enough here? Could the script have given here more? What does she bring to the film?
  • Why does Cate play villains in big blockbusters? In addition to Thor she was the heavy in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Cinderella (2015).

Blanchett with Waititi on set

  • Irreverent tongue in cheek tone and quirky characters that obviously comes from Taika Waititi. Is this the funniest superhero movie?
  • Who’s our favorite Chris? Candidates are Hemsworth, Pine, Evans and Messina. Never Pratt.
  • Is Hemsworth funny?  He cerainly keeps trying to be.
  • Hela’s look; skin tight jumpsuit with bare shoulders, smoky eye makeup, antlers.
  • Cate’s body movements are to die for; the walk, the hand movements.
  • Thor and Hulk as comedy buddies – does it work?

Crush that hammer, Cate!

Scenes we liked:

What seemed off:

  • Cate isolated with Karl Urban for most of the film, away from the main action. 

What reviews said of film / Cate:

“Like most of the better Marvel efforts, Thor: Ragnarok feels like the work of a unique sensibility instead of a huddle of brand managers. While the studio’s films demonstrated plenty of comic flair right from the start of its shared-universe experiment, with 2008’s Iron Man, recent efforts have veered too far into bland, jokey listlessness; frivolity has trumped lightheartedness, pandering has replaced irreverence. But in Ragnarok, directed by the Kiwi filmmaker and actor Taika Waititi, the gags are weird enough, and land frequently enough, that it all seems to be coming from someplace — and someone — real.”Bilge Ebiri, The Village Voice

Cate Blanchett as Hela isolated in Asgaard with Karl Urban

“There are bright spots and imaginative touches here and there, including a high-functioning alcoholic mercenary named Valkyrie (the excellent Tessa Thompson) who winds up entangled in the inevitable war for Asgard’s survival. But whether Waititi is cross-cutting distractedly between planets, letting Blanchett channel her inner Jean Marsh or trying to give Idris Elba and his orange contact lenses something to do, he never finds a proper groove or holds your attention for more than minutes at a time. Maybe that’s not a bug, but a feature. The director has set himself the unenviable task of making a movie that never stops trying to wow you, all while seeming too cool and insouciant to care if you’re wowed or not.” Justin Chang, LATimes

Hela appears, a lithe vision in a black and beetle-green unitard. Her makeup looks like what happens to a smoky eye after you’ve slept in it, and she sports a marvelous set of black antlers, as if she’d raided a glam hunting lodge. She’s surely a very busy Norse goddess, because she disappears for long stretches of the movie. Thor: Ragnarok is boyishly eager to reveal Thor’s goofy likability to us, as if it were something we hadn’t yet cottoned to. Directed by the enormously talented New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, it’s well intentioned but ultimately numbing, an instance of fun overkill whose ultimate goal seems to be to put us into a special-effects coma. Not even the occasional inspired touch — like Cate Blanchett as the silky villainess Hela — can save it. It’s at least three movies rolled into one, with maybe half a decent one in there. But like Thor himself, it sure is big. And if you value quantity over quality, it’s a lot of movie for the money.” – Stephanie Zacharek, Time

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