Passing – review

Brief synopsis: In 1920’s America, a couple of mixed-race women get reacquainted, having not seen one another since high school. One of the women is married to a white man and passes herself off as white. The other embraces her black side, her family life in Harlem. 

Is it any good?: Passing, a directorial debut from actor Rebecca Hall, is a bit of a disappointment. From a book of the same name, the film promises more than it delivers. With so many subjects to explore, Passing barely skims the surfaces of them, the film a frustrating viewing experience. 

Spoiler(ish) territory: Irene (Tessa Thompson) is shopping in New York. It is the 1920’s. Emancipation has been a thing since the beginning of the century nevertheless, black people remain second-class citizens. 

A pale mixed-race woman, Irene nervously shops amongst the white people. None of them notice that she is not white. It is the height of summer in New York, the heat oppressive. 

Irene visits a hotel bar for a cool drink. The patronage is all-white; she feels out of place. A young couple comes into the bar. The woman is blond and pretty, her partner fawning over her. 

The man leaves her, going to the bathroom. Irene looks at the woman, who catches her looking and stares back at her. The woman approaches, calling her name. 

Irene does not recognise her. The woman begins to laugh. It’s Clare (Ruth Negga), an old high school friend. Irene had not seen her for over a decade. 

Clare is passing herself off as white. Even her husband does not know she is mixed. Clare has a daughter that, thankfully, came out pale of skin. Mistakenly, she thinks Irene is doing the same. 

Irene explains that she is still living in the same neighbourhood. She lives in a black area. Harlem. She does not want to pass for white. Irene, isolated in white society, jumps at the opportunity to reconnect with the black life she grew up knowing. 

Final thoughts: Hall’s love for the source material is evident in the film. That is the problem. The script has little to no exposition, requiring Thompson and Negga to tell the story through their emotions and acting. 

As excellent as both actors are – and they are both very good – the film’s script gives them too little to work with. The ninety-eight-minute film is filled mostly, with Thompson’s not unattractive face, struggling to tell some type of story. 

It is difficult to know how faithful to the source material the film is. A book tends to lend itself more to an emotive experience. Passing is very emotive, tackling the prickly subjects of race, identity, class and belonging. 

Though Hall’s film is not long, it is interminably slow. The story meanders, the tensions that Negga’s character must have suffered are not evident at all. 

Thompson’s Irene, in contrast, has her own demons. Sadly, the script and minimal interactions with other characters do not allow them to show. Passing has gained some critical acclaim, which one can only believe is due to the subject matter it tackles. 

From a technical standpoint, the film is not great. It is in focus, yes, but some of the shot selections seem more indulgent than necessary. Shooting the entire film in black and white, whilst artsy, is a bit of a copout, the light coloured skin of both actors leaning towards white for the viewer. 

The jazz club scene works well in the film, the energy leaping off the screen. Similarly, the concluding party scene has a buzz about it that, rather than contrasting with the rest of the film, shows up the slow pacing.

That Hall is an actor herself is evident in the performances from the cast. All of the actors bring strong performances. Ultimately, Passing disappoints because it had so much scope and promise. Not a terrible film but an unsatisfying one that is difficult to recommend.

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