It would, I argue, be simultaneously very dismissive and highly complimentary to describe Rebecca Hall’s Passing as a seamless translation of Nella Larsen’s novella from page to screen. That would ignore the ingenious choices made in terms of cinematography, lighting, directing, music and acting throughout this sumptuous 2021 feature. And yet, I can’t help praise it for feeling almost entirely like Larsen’s novella in screen form. From the ambiguous glances, introspective close-ups and carefully placed words, Hall’s film is both a stunning representation of Larsen’s novella and a triumph of cinema in its own right.
Passing follows Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) on a chance encounter with an old friend, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga). Both light-skinned African Americans living on the east coast in the 1920s, Clare has “passed” for white for over a decade: even – indeed, most importantly – her racist white husband (Alexander Skarsgård) is not aware of her ancestry. Joining Irene’s social circle in Harlem while still pretending to be white, Clare becomes inextricably linked to Irene as the two explore their relationship towards each other.
Shot in black and white, cinematographer Eduard Grau has created a visually stunning atmosphere in which the constant state of fear and uncertainty plaguing Passing’s main characters is palpable. The saturated lighting of the opening scenes demonstrates the invasive, ever-present demands of whiteness bearing down on Irene. The oppressive heat of the Chicago sun beats down as she sits nervously, worrying that she will be caught passing while stopping for afternoon tea at an upper-class New York establishment. Shots are frequently too close for comfort as Irene tries to avoid eye contact with those around her.
The two leads play off each other wonderfully, each interaction hinting at a world of desire and frustration simmering below the surface. Ruth Negga is simultaneously inviting and frustratingly opaque as Irene’s prodigal friend, hiding in plain sight as she cries for help out of a life she no longer wants to lead. Tessa Thompson is an enigma of another sort. Despite Irene’s proud attempts to uplift her race, we see her failures when it comes to class struggle, represented most clearly in her dismissive attitude towards her maid, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins). While Clare is the one who is passing in the most extreme sense, it is Irene whose diction hints at a desire to escape her past: her over-pronunciation of vowels sets her up almost as a caricature of a WASP-type.
Indeed, the production plays around with sound in a number of fascinating ways. The sounds of New York penetrates all aspects of Irene’s life, with the noise of traffic underscoring each conversation she has in bed with her husband, Brian (André Holland). Just like the lighting, the soundscape becomes distorted and elongated as Irene struggles with the ambiguities of her ever-changing relationship with both Brian and Clare as well as her sense of self as a black woman in an ever-watching society.
Passing is a joy to watch, blending its technical prowess with challenging and nuanced themes of performativity, blackness, jealousy and desire. Rebecca Hall has brought new life to Larsen’s similarly enigmatic and unyielding work which will leave viewers with plenty to think about.
Passing is now available both in Irish cinemas and streaming on Netflix