Director: Rebecca Hall

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill

Camp, Antoinette Crowe

Genre: Period drama

Country / Language: USA / English

Duration: 1 he 39 min

Release date: November 10, 2021 (Netflix India)

‘Passing’, a film written, directed, and produced by actor Rebecca Hall (from ‘The Prestige’), premiered earlier this year at Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim and saw limited theatrical release afterwards. It is now available to watch worldwide on Netflix.

The black-and-white movie is based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name and follows the life of a mixed race woman named Irene (Tessa Thompson from ‘Thor: Ragnarok’) who crosses paths with her childhood friend, the similarly biracial Clare (Ruth Negga). While Irene has settled in the black-majority neighbourhood of Harlem with a black husband and two sons, her friend Clare lives her life as a well-off white lady, hiding her racial identity from her severely racist white husband. Irene and Clare’s lives begin to unravel as they reunite once again after all these years and undergo self-reflection.

The film keenly observes these two women as they attempt to pass as white in certain social settings to protect themselves from discrimination and potential violence. It is the late twenties America after all. And while this story is set in New York City among affluent characters, and it is nowhere near as horrifying for black citizens as, say, the segregated South, racism still lurks around Clare, Irene and Irene’s family from outside the frame. A character mentions an event when Irene’s young son is called a slur. Another scene has Clare’s bigoted husband John rant about his hatred for black people and the associated looting and crime that he reads in the news about them. The relatively subtle and nuanced displays of discrimination and ‘othering’ in this picture are laudable and even relevant to American and European society today.

The acting is another formidable aspect of this crisply shot film. Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga and André Holland are all wonderful and elegant across the board. Thompson’s performance here is just as subdued and delicate as the film itself and Negga (who plays Clare) is more theatrical as she’s a theatre-trained actor. Her voice inflection, swaying of the head and twitching of her big doe eyes, along with her platinum blonde hair, remind one of the Golden Age Hollywood film stars like Joan Blondelle and Greta Garbo. André Holland (‘Moonlight’) plays Irene’s doctor husband, Brian Redfield. Holland plays him straight and well as Brian does his best to deal with his wife’s newly excavated friendship with Clare and witnesses Irene face her insecurities with the entry of her old friend.

The cinematography, if a little studied and beautifully distracting, is sumptuous and will be a real treat for the lovers of nostalgic classic Hollywood movies.

What does make ‘Passing’ falter from time to time is its snail-like pace and the tendency to hyperfocus on empty rooms or silence. It is as if the director thinks there is deep meaning to be found in the many seconds that pass from the moment an actor utters a word to the moment they sit down on a sofa when that is not the case at all. It only comes off as those insufferable art house movies that try too hard to be ‘meditational’ and quiet.

There is also the second half of the movie when it seems like a major shift in genre has taken place. What was initially a socio-political account about two mixed race women and their lives (as they face potentially dangerous encounters and attend a mixed race ball) turns into a psychological portrait of Irene and the complexes.she develops toward Clare. Although trapped in an unhappy domestic life and hiding her past from her husband, Clare still has that spark in her smile, her eyes and the way she carries herself. She effortlessly bonds with the people around her like Irene’s children and maid, much to the surprise of Irene who desperately scrutinizes every nook and cranny of Clare’s face to figure out: what is it about her that is so irresistible? Of course, Clare isn’t actually invincible or super-extraordinary but it is made clear to us that this is really only in Irene’s mind. We begin getting extreme closeups of Irene’s envious, troubled and questioning face which increasingly gets sweaty towards the climax.

The ending seems a bit melodramatic, much in character like the 1920s melodrama movies that were blockbusters in those ages. In 2021, this ending doesn’t shock. It is familiar and tragic but also disappointing, as if a whole chunk of the story has been cut out from the final product in order to reach the hurried conclusion.

The pace of the film may test some audience’s patience and even bore non-fans of classic black-and-white cinema to sleep. However, the actors’ performances are thoroughly engaging and the cinematography is mesmerizing to gaze at. A special mention goes to the hauntingly pretty score by composer Dev Hynes, who also makes popular music under the name Blood Orange. It must also be said that it is truly a pleasure to view a movie made in the glamorous style of Golden Age Hollywood but with non-white people at the forefront, with the story being about them, by them and for them. This is the closest we can possibly get to a vintage aesthetic – that isn’t whitewashed – that movie goers dream of and swoon for.

‘Passing’ is now streaming on Netflix

Also read: Singapore defends death sentence on Indian-origin Malaysian drug trafficker

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