Passing opens with a woman shopping in the sweltering heat of New York City in the 1920s. Irene goes to a tea room in a beautiful hotel to recover from the oppressive sun outside and is unnerved when another well-dressed woman keeps staring at her. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is demure, her every movement filled with grace, and the beginning of the film is quiet and delicate to match. But there’s a tension in the air that the audience can feel despite being unaware of the cause.
It is only later that the audience will realize that Irene’s anxiety is because is concerned that someone has seen through. She is passing: the practice of a person of color passing off as white, typically to be allowed into a space in which they would otherwise not be welcome. Thompson perfectly captures Irene’s internal dilemma, while maintaining a cool facade. However, the tension is finally broken when she realizes that the other woman is a high school friend of hers, Clare (Ruth Negga), whom she hasn’t seen in twelve years.
Passing is actress Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut and a personal story for her. While it’s based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Hall was also inspired by family history. In interviews, she has discussed that one of her own grandparents passed as white, connecting her to this material. Hall directs the film with a delicacy that is particularly impressive for a first film, but also does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the novel in her screenplay.
The story follows Irene as she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare and discovers how different their lives have become. While Irene occasionally passes for the sake of going into a store or restaurant, she is married to a Black doctor, Brian (André Holland). Meanwhile, Clare has completely passed herself off as white and is married to a rich, but racist white man John (Alexander Skarsgård).
Irene is busy with raising her two sons and her charity work with the Negro Welfare League, but Clare is determined to find a way back into her life. The two women admire each other, but are also jealous of each other. Meanwhile, Brain and Irene have disagreements over how to raise their sons, as he believes she is sheltering them too much from what it means to be Black in the United States.
Compared to many films about race relations in this country, it’s very quiet and slow. There are no scenes of racist violence, but the fear of Clare being found out hangs over the whole film. In fact, it is fear that silently creeps its way through the entire film: fear of John finding out Clare’s real identity, fear of Brian falling to Clare’s charms, fear of the carefully insular world that Irene has built for her children collapsing.
The film is made in black and white which is fitting for its subject. It puts everything into shades of grey, highlighting the ambiguity that these light-skinned Black women are able to capitalize on. It also easily allows for Clare to look darker or lighter based on the way that she is lit in particular scenes.
It is the performances that are the star of the show and it’s a credit to Hall’s direction that everyone in the cast fits their characters so perfectly. Skarsgård is barely in the film, but he is frightening enough in a subtle, believable way that his presence looms when he’s not onscreen. Meanwhile, Holland builds a very nuanced character and has great chemistry with both Thompson and Negga.
Negga is magnetic and charming in the role. It’s easy, like Irene, to be drawn in despite seeing Clare’s many flaws. The performance is reminiscent of Daisy Buchanon from The Great Gatsby: a character who can be infuriating at times, but that you’re never willing to look away from. Thompson imbues Irene with a strong internal life; it’s easy to see the feelings simmering under the surface that she is suppressing. The chemistry between the women, and the delicate balance of their friendship, is fascinating to watch.
Hall does an excellent job at building tension subtly, while still remaining gentle. The threat of Clare facing the consequences of her deception hangs over the film and her life as Irene’s friend feels like a hazy dream. Adapting a short novel into a film is an impressive feat and Hall manages to keep what is best from the novel, even lifting lines directly from it. Her choice to use a 4:3 aspect ratio helps immerse us in the period atmosphere of the 1920s.
The movie is absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful sets and costumes, creating an idyllic world that it’s easy to understand why Clare would envy Irene’s life. Shots are gorgeously framed, with an excellent use of mirrors and soft domestic imagery. The score by Devonté Hynes, like the film itself, is delicate, and the use of quiet is powerful in a film largely about things left unsaid or hidden.
Passing’s real downfall is its slow pacing that never allows the film to gain momentum. It means that the provocative ending is so jarring that it almost feels like it’s come out of a different film. Despite the fact that it’s quiet—sometimes to the point of boredom—Hall does an excellent job at addressing very thought-provoking complicated themes. Passing explores a phenomenon not often discussed and features some of the best performances of Thompson and Negga’s careers.
Passing is now streaming on Netflix.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.