The feature directorial debut of Rebecca Hall, Passing is based on the 1929 novel of the same name and tells the story of Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), two black women in New York City. Irene lives in Harlem and is married to a black doctor, but Clare “passes” as white, and lives in Chicago with a wealthy but deeply racist husband, who believes her to be white. When the two women – once childhood friends – reunite, they become increasingly and inextricably intertwined with each other’s lives, and while Clare feels liberated, her ruse is put in jeopardy.
It’s a complex and tragic story, and the film captures well the nuances of race dynamics, as well as the complicated character arcs at play. While at times it can feel like some plot points are dragged out for too long, and others left too quickly, for the most part the scripting is tight and captivating. Though there is the occasional pacing issue, the relationships between the characters are compelling enough that these problems can be easily forgiven in the face of a gripping story.
Thompson and Negga are fantastic as Irene and Clare, with brilliant chemistry. Clare is a deeply dramatic individual, while Irene is more reserved, but their interactions tease out the messiness and vulnerability beneath the surface, making for a very intriguing relationship that is explored in a number of fascinating ways.
The film is shot in black-and-white, in keeping with cinema from the 1920s, and serving to highlight the racial dynamics in the piece. The production plays with lighting in interesting ways to communicate its point: the whites of uptown New York are blinding, obscuring but uncomfortable, while the darkness of the streets of Harlem is more revealing, but brings deeper and richer shades to the setting and the story.
Passing is an ambitious adaptation of an important literary work, and while it doesn’t quite nail every aspect. it more or less succeeds at telling an engaging and emotive story on the strength of its stylish presentation, its talented cast and its intelligent and intricate script.
Passing is released on Netflix on 10th November 2021.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Passing here: