Film Review: Rebecca Hall’s Excellent ‘Passing’ Tells a Story of Racial Identity in 1920s New York | Ap


From the muffled misterioso quality of its opening sequence to the nervous ambiguity of its coda, writer-director Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” (premieres on Netflix November 10) floats like a mirage from the past – New York at the end 1920s, mostly in Harlem.

Yet nothing in it seems so distant. We’re no slouch with this film, even though much of its emotional texture simmers rather than bubbles. “Passing” pays close attention to everything its excellent lead actors do between the lines delineating a dangerous friendship.

We first meet Irene (Tessa Thompson), a fair-skinned black woman of some means married to a calm and sardonic black doctor (André Holland). They have two children and a comfortable life, although Irene seems to be rocking on the edges of it.

Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s remarkable 1929 novel begins with a rare, perhaps unique, act of “passing” for Irene. Head lowered, hat protecting most of her face, Irene silently convinces a white-only hotel tearoom that she is indeed one of them, not the forbidden Other. Once inside, she spots an old friend from college, Clare (Ruth Negga), lighter skinned and now passing for white, in a marriage to a violent, slapping white racist (Alexander Skarsgard). He does not know his wife’s secret.

In the novel, Clare is described as being “like a cat”, an attractive and changeable manipulator of cunning and great charm. “Passing” unfolds like a story of many secrets, both external (when is Clare’s deception going to crumble?) Here behind the camera, and what Thompson and Negga are accomplishing onscreen in this extraordinarily detailed portrait becomes a master class in progressive disclosures – the mark of the director’s best performances.

As Clare creeps into Irene’s life and home, the cross currents deepen. Irene volunteers for what her husband cynically describes as “your precious black league.” A famous white writer (Bill Camp) also works for the welfare organization, and while much of the story remains narrowly focused on women, the world these women navigate, or cannot, emerge in mouthwatering fragments. Hall recently told the Chicago Tribune that the central, rekindled but dangerous friendship of Irene and Clare is founded on the idea of ​​”two female characters, two sides of a coin, built to destroy each other. other”. It’s not melodrama, however. It’s more subtle, with a deceptive calm baked in evocations of its time and place.

Hall shot “Passing” in the 4: 3 square aspect ratio deployed by the cinema of the time represented, in soft black and white. Cinematographer Edu Grau’s strategies favor reflective, tilted mirror images – literally, characters photographed in mirrors – and reminders that fixed identity is elusive in this universe. Throughout the film, we hear the theme of composer Devonte Hines’ bittersweet phantom piano, and that’s just one piece of a very rich sound design. Costume designer Marci Rodgers works freely and at times out of time, giving Clare in particular a forward-leaning character line suggesting bold and dangerous women of 1940s or even 1950s Hollywood.

The result, as Hall said, is “more emotionally evocative than it is necessarily historically accurate.” Whether for reasons of tight budget or poetic allusion, the streets of this 1929 Harlem do not seem entirely natural, nor full. It’s a reflection, I think, of how Irene’s carefully prescribed life felt before Clare sparkled, a mirage within a mirage.

After a brief theatrical outing, “Passing” parks on Netflix this week. I worry what the streaming platform’s algorithmic bots (or, worse, real humans) will do to entice a menu subscriber to watch. (No sign of “Loved C. Thomas Howell in“ Soul Man ”? You might enjoy that!”) Yet.) The pace of the film is careful, methodical. Here and there Hall lets that pace slow down, and with Thompson’s Irene, the less overtly dramatic of the two women, there are times when ambiguity meets opacity.

On the other hand: a smaller director, working in a vein of awkward realism with designers and especially less qualified performers, could have made “Passing” something conventional. In novel form, and in Hall’s beautiful adaptation, it’s anything but conventional.


4 stars (out of four)

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, some racial slurs, and smoking)

Duration: 1:38

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