After a much-applauded performance in Christine, one of the highlights of Sundance 2016, Rebecca Hall returns to the scene of her triumph, but this time in the director’s chair. And for her debut feature, she’s chosen an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s elegantly slim volume, Passing, a 1920s story of repression, identity, the pursuit of happiness and the pain of racism.
Irene (Tessa Thompson) has a comfortable life in Harlem, married to a doctor and, although African American, she can “pass” as white. It allows her to shop in all the best New York stores and take tea in top hotels. One afternoon, seeking refuge from the summer heat, she runs into a blonde woman who turns out to be somebody from her past. She and Clare (Ruth Negga) went to school together and, with her dyed hair and careful make up, her old friend is equally accepted within white society. But, while Irene is married to an African American, Clare has gone one step further. She’s married to an wealthy white man, who has no idea of her heritage and is vocal in his hatred for black people. As they renew their friendship, the contrast in their circumstances causes tensions and threatens both their lives.
The opening scene – footsteps in blurred black and white slowly revealed as belonging to two affluent white women – takes us straight into 1920s New York, where buying toys best described as “gollies” was the norm. Irene is one of the customers in the shop, her dark hair concealed by her hat, which half covers her face. She can hardly look anybody in the eye, but she can still “pass”: the black sales assistant serving her doesn’t bat an eyelid. But tension is with her wherever she goes, the fear of being uncovered and the repercussions that would go with it. When she meets Clare in the tearoom, it’s clear her old school friend has no such fears or, if she does, conceals them more effectively. She’s chosen to live on the other side of the colour line, although there are moments when the inherent insecurities of her life are all too clear.
The film is a wondrous technical accomplishment. The black and white cinematography is, in turn, faithful to the period and exquisitely sensual, luxuriating in close ups of both lead actors. Reinforced by sound that creates the illusion of a classic old movie and a meticulous attention to detail – Irene’s palatial but increasingly dark and oppressive house is a magnificent creation – Passing has a multitude of strengths. Inevitably, they include the cast, with both Thompson and Negga delivering superb performances as the two women choosing to deal with their predicament in contrasting ways. Negga is almost unrecognisable, with an air of Blanche Dubois about her, while the luminous Thompson is constantly torn between the truth of her life and the truth of her friend’s.
If only the narrative was in the same league. Larsen’s original novel ran to just 95 pages, demanding a concentrated style to tackle its many themes. Hall’s film is 98 minutes long yet, despite all it has to examine, there’s a strong sense of it having been over-stretched to make the required running time. The resulting slow pace comes close to a crawl half way through, concentration slips and the initial investment in the characters wains. Despite all those visual wonders – the final snow blurred scene in particular – it doesn’t grip as it should, nor does it have the depth it deserves. As debuts go, Hall’s promises much for the future, but the possibility of what could have been leaves as strong an impression as what we actually experience on the screen.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Sundance 2021 | Dir. Rebecca Hall | Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland, Bill Camp, Alexander Skarsgard.