Sundance Review: ‘Passing’ is stylized and seductive but remains out of reach
In yet another female directorial debut featured at the Sundance Film Festival, acclaimed actress Rebecca Hall premiered her new film, Passing, a stylized look at race in America, starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, which Hall also wrote.
Set in 1920’s New York, Thompson and Negga play Irene and Clare, two former high school friends who run into each other in a swanky Manhattan hotel lobby, where Irene has ducked into after a day of shopping. As a light-skinned Black woman, Irene has realized that if she wears her hat just so and walks and talks a certain way, she can “pass” for white in this ritzy part of town. It’s not something she does often, so she’s still nervous about it, preparing to be caught at any second. When she spots Clare across the room, sitting proudly, with her hair dyed blond, on the arm of a handsome white man, Irene is confused but riveted. Clare bounds over to her, delighted to see her, and they chit-chat, as if nothing at all were strange. But the encounter stays with Irene as she returns to her Harlem brownstone, which she shares with her Black doctor husband and their two sons. There seems to be a part of Irene that is envious of Clare’s freedom to choose her world, but an equal amount of apprehension and fear of the danger Clare is putting herself in by fully embracing such a deception.
Clare, reminded of the world she left behind, reaches out to Irene, wanting to be friends and to be a part of her life. Seeing Irene has awakened something in Clare, as she realizes she wants to find a way to get back in touch with her Black roots, as she’s finding life very lonely on the “other side.” Clare immediately charms all Irene’s family and friends, while Irene grows more and more distant as this intruder grows more and more comfortable in her carefully constructed life. Clare is a reminder to Irene all at once of everything she used to be and everything she never can be. While Irene knows she can “pass” once in a while, to see Clare be able to pull it off so convincingly fills Irene with both fear and longing. But, most of all, Clare only serves to remind Irene how she is trapped between two worlds, neither one feeling fully at home in.
Adapted from Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel, Passing is a complicated and textured examination of racial politics in the 1920s, but there is a distinct lack of clarity about its motives that hurts its effectiveness as a film. Shot in a heavily stylized and dreamy black-and-white, the film is seductive and beautiful, but the over-reliance on style robs the story of its gravitas, as Irene’s state of confusion only leads to the confusion on our part as to what exactly she is feeling. Thompson is a first-rate actress, capable of many dimensions in her performances, but her choices in playing Irene are distracting. She imbues her character with an overly formalized way of speaking, as if she is overcompensating for something, which may have been designed to show Irene’s purposeful intent to move as far away from her Black roots as possible, but comes off as being put on and unnatural. Negga is also an extremely talented actress, but Hall hasn’t done her any favors either, by creating a character who is nebulous and ditzy, never once letting the audience see or understand her inner turmoil.
Both characters are hiding, both existing in a world of their own creation, both desperate to be caught, to be seen for who they really are, yet very little of that texture translates to the film, as we just see two frightened women, inhabiting their spaces, never fully engaging with each other, or coming to terms with themselves.
There are too many questions that are never answered, as Passing ends as a beautiful, stylish attempt at commentary on racial politics, but ends up just a beautiful picture that is empty of any convincing meaning.
This review is from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.