Rebecca Hall has had quite a year; first, she had “The Night House,” which was a surprisingly strong horror film from this summer. Now, her directorial debut, “Passing,” is an impressive adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. Featuring Tessa Thompson’s best performance yet, “Passing” benefits from both great performances and a steady hand behind the camera.
In “Passing,” Irene (Tessa Thompson) is reacquainted with her high school friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), and the two live two very different lives that come close to shattering each other’s illusions. The title of the film refers to Clare, who “passes” as white unbeknownst to her husband while Irene identifies as African-American. Both women have a lot at stake, as it should go without saying that Clare cannot have her husband find out the truth, while Irene is trying her very best to keep her family intact. Irene’s marriage is a bit rocky, and her boys are beginning to grow up and are beginning to have to tackle issues like race relations in their lives. “Passing” is impressively balances race relations, class, and gender among other subjects in a tidy 98-minute runtime. The novel is roughly 140 pages, but it’s glaring when a film struggles to find a balance between various themes. “Passing” doesn’t run into issues with tackling all of those themes in the film. There are maybe 20 minutes of downtime that slow down towards the end, but it’s forgiven because of the crescendo of the film.
Clare’s secrets are the most gripping part of the story. Clare is seemingly fine with her decisions and the game she must play, which compromises who she is yet she still says it is “worth the price.” The monochrome filter that floods the screen only enhances the illusion and lie that she lives. Ruth Negga delivers such a heartfelt performance as Clare. We don’t know that much of the history between Clare and Irene, yet the performances from both Thompson and Negga would lead you to believe that they have known each other their whole lives.
While most films pair an uneasy score in tension-filled scenes in order to enhance the tension, “Passing” opts for a very minimal score. In fact, most scenes don’t consist of a score or any type of music for that matter with the exception of some of the dances Irene, Clare, and Irene’s husband Dave (Gbenga Akinnagbe). The conversations are more meaningful, more intimate, without having a violin plucking in the background. The 4:3 aspect ratio also gives the film a claustrophobic feel. Not to say that there is a scene like William Dafoe’s speech in “The Lighthouse” in “Passing,” but the aesthetic keeps the film grounded, which is an appropriate move in a film of this scale.
“Passing” is a difficult film to make because of its subject matter, but someone needs to step up to the plate and tackle a novel as significant and rich as “Passing.” If “Passing” is any indicator, Rebecca Hall has a very bright future ahead of her should she continue to direct films. It feels like a film of the past, and not just because of the time period it takes place in or the black and white aesthetic; it’s a film with a lot to say but chooses to do so very quietly. It’s intimate and doesn’t make much noise at all. Maybe it feels like an old-school drama because of the over-saturation of mindless tentpole movies we get or just the speed of the modern-day movie.
“Passing” is playing in select theaters now and will be available on Netflix on November 10.