Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are phenomenal in this polished, probing and patient drama about racial identity in America.
Sarah Ward
Published on October 28, 2021


Locking gazes across the room, staring intently with a deep fascination that feels fated, seeing oneself in the sparkle of another's eyes: when these moments happen in a movie, it's typically to fuel the first flushes of romance. When they occur early in Passing, however, it's because former childhood friends Irene (Tessa Thompson, Westworld) and Clare (Ruth Negga, Ad Astra) have spied each other in a swanky Manhattan hotel. The pair peer back and forth, intrigued and attentive. That said, it isn't until Clare approaches Irene — and calls her Reenie, a nickname she hasn't heard in years — that the latter realises who she's been looking at. It's the immaculately styled blonde bob that fools Irene, as it's meant to fool the world. As becomes clear in a politely toned but horrendously blunt conversation with Clare's racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård, Godzilla vs Kong) shortly afterwards, Irene's long-lost pal has built an entire life and marriage around being seen as white.

Passing's eponymous term comes loaded not just with meaning, but with history; adapted from Nella Larsen's 1929 novel of the same name, it's set in America's Jim Crow era. This introductory scene between Irene and Clare comes layered with multiple sources of tension, too, with Irene only in the hotel because she's decided to flirt with visiting a white establishment. Still, she's shocked by her pal's subterfuge. When she initially spots Clare, the film adopts Irene's perspective — and its frames bristle with a mix of nervousness, uncertainty and familiarity. Irene rediscovers an old friend in a new guise, and also comes face to face with the lengths some are willing to go to in the name of survival and an easier life.

Friendships can be rewarding and challenging, fraught and nourishing, and demanding and essential, including all at once, as Passing repeatedly demonstrates from this point onwards. Irene can't completely move past Clare's choices and can't shake her fears about what'd happen if the vile John ever learned Clare's secret; however, she's also quick to defend her to others — to her doctor husband Brian (André Holland, The Eddy), who swiftly warms to Clare anyway; and to acclaimed white novelist Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp, News of the World), who's her own entry point into an artier realm. Indeed, in household where talk of lynchings is common dinner conversation, Irene recognises far more in Clare's decision than she'll vocally admit. Almost everyone she knows is pretending to be something else as well, after all, including Irene in her own ways.

Largely confined to Irene and Brian's well-appointed Harlem home and other parties in the neighbourhood — after that first hotel rendezvous, that is — Passing is an economical yet complicated film. It may seem straightforward in charting Irene and Clare's rekindled acquaintance, but it's exacting and precise as it interrogates both societally enforced and self-inflicted pain. Its Black characters live in a world that pushes them aside and worse merely for existing, with its central pair each internalising that reality. Their every careful move reacts to it, in fact, a bleak truth that actor-turned-filmmaker Rebecca Hall (The Night House) never allows to fade. That's one of the reasons she's chosen to shoot this striking directorial debut in elegant, crisp and devastatingly telling monochrome hues: both everything and nothing here is black and white.

Hall doesn't appear on-screen here herself, but she still gifts Passing the same intensity and nuance that's always been part of her performances. In the film's lingering frames, intimate close-ups of Thompson and Negga, and all-round eagerness to see the space that surrounds them — that often separates them, too — she proves as astute a director as she is an actor. It helps that she has enlisted two leads who exude the same traits, and Passing couldn't be more perfectly cast as a result. Thanks to Sylvie's Love and Loving, both of the movie's stars have grappled with race relations in America already in their careers. They've done so to affecting and astonishing effect, too. Here, while never repeating themselves, both Thompson and Negga are just as exceptional as they've ever been.

It was always going to take intricate, complex and sensitive portrayals to tell this story, and Passing's talented leads just keep delivering. The whirlwind of emotions that flickers through Irene again and again, as evident in her gaze, posture and tone far more than she's openly trying to convey, is nothing short of masterful on Thompson's part. And the determination and sorrow fighting inside Clare — the yearning to connect with the background she shunned out of what she felt was necessity, and the unwillingness to be judged for her choices as well — echoes through a hypnotic turn by Negga. Showy yet thoughtful, it's the kind of performance might've just stuck to the confident and ostentatious character's Roaring Twenties flapper-style surface notes in other hands.

With meticulous assistance from cinematographer Eduard Grau (The Way Back) and editor Sabine Hoffman (Juliet, Naked), Hall also turns Passing into an exercise in looking; this is a feature about perception and authenticity, and it repeatedly pushes those concepts to the fore in every image. It observes quietly and intently, giving Irene and Clare the type of unfettered, unguarded and earnest attention that they're clearly so rarely able to enjoy as they wrestle with racial identity in their daily existence. It truly sees them, including their strengths, struggles, dreams, desires and flaws. And, it refuses to redirect its gaze when the tragedy it has always been building towards makes its presence known — an outcome that shocks and feels inevitable at the same time. The jazzy score might play things gently, but Passing uses its polish, poise and patience, and its superb performances, to pack probing and pain into every delicately rendered moment.

Passing screens in select Sydney cinemas from Thursday, October 28, and streams via Netflix from Wednesday, November 10.


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