Rebecca Hall’s piercing drama stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as old friends navigating the color line in 1920s New York.
Irene Redfield, the restless heart of Rebecca Hall’s piercing drama “Passing,” has a beautiful dream of a life. She also has a handsome husband who’s a doctor, a pair of well-behaved children, an elegant townhouse and a maid to help keep the domestic churn in check. She has good friends and meaningful charity work. Her figure is trim and graceful; her lovely face serene and unlined. Everything is as it should be, or so Irene believes. She doesn’t know that her idyll is as fragile as a soap bubble, and that this glistening, quivering fantasy she has created needs just one touch to vanish.
Set in the 1920s, “Passing” tells what happens to Irene (Tessa Thompson) when a childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), enters that dream, disturbing its peace and threatening its careful illusions. Like Irene, Clare is a light-skinned African American living in Jim Crow America. Unlike Irene, Clare is living as white: “passing.” Orphaned after her father’s death and put into the care of white relatives who treated her like the help, Clare vanished. Years later, she has re-emerged with a wealthy white husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard), who’s oblivious to her history. He also — as he tells the startled Irene as Clare watches — hates Black people, unaware that he’s speaking to one.
Based on Nella Larsen’s brilliant 1929 novel, “Passing” is an anguished story of identity and belonging. Like the book, the movie centers on Irene, a bourgeois wife and mother who can’t grasp why she is so addled by Clare. The two meet again by accident, each having taken refuge from the blistering summer heat in the grand tearoom of a fashionable New York hotel. Irene enters the tearoom with palpable wariness, her gait slowed, head down and face partly obscured by the semitransparent brim of her cloche hat. There are no racially restrictive signs in the hotel; the restrictions are a given. Like Clare, Irene has transgressed. But then she goes home to Harlem.
Irene doesn’t recognize Clare at first, a confusion that reverberates throughout a story that hinges on appearances, racial and otherwise. Irene may be on her guard in the hotel, but the very fact that she enters the tearoom speaks to her self-confidence and to how she has learned to navigate the color line. Because, like Clare, Irene is also passing; unlike Clare, she is only briefly slipping into a masquerade. Irene compartmentalizes and rationalizes her act; she needs to cool down, the tearoom is a breezy refuge, if one she intentionally seeks out rather than merely happens upon. Yet by passing, however fleetingly, she also becomes Clare’s double.
Hall wrote and directed the movie, her feature debut, and has followed Larsen’s lead. The novel is told through Irene’s limited point of view, though it takes time to grasp the subtleties of her blinkered perspective (understanding their implications takes longer). Irene is a sympathetic, attractive, purposely opaque character with a quick mind and tongue, a richness of character that Hall’s filmmaking and Thompson’s performance convey in exacting, illuminating detail. But there’s a stubborn rigidity to Irene’s self-assurance and how she engages her reality, and she is by turns surprised, baffled and angered that other people’s actions and desires don’t always conform to her own.
In sticking close to the novel, Hall has pulled scenes and lines from the book, but she also visually conveys how Irene sees and exists in her world, mapping the coordinates of a life and consciousness through the expressionistic lighting, through the many tonalities of the black-and-white visuals and through the elegant rooms that edge on dollhouse claustrophobia. It all looks so irresistible: Everything and everyone is lovely. There’s an ethereal quality to this picture (Irene’s, Hall’s) and Thompson gives her character a gestural delicacy and a suppleness of movement that at times makes it seem as if Irene is drifting along on a heavenly cloud. Yet, at other times, she seems to be sleepwalking.
The movie tracks Irene and Clare’s relationship over several seasons of falling leaves and snow, and then regenerative growth. The women go in and out of each other’s orbit amid parties and more informal get-togethers. When Clare disappears for a while, Irene comes into greater focus as does her brittle exasperation with her husband, Brian (André Holland), who wants to live abroad. Irene wants to stay put, though the contradictions of this resolve are evident in the charity work that she does for the (fictional) Negro Welfare League and by her insistence that Brian avoid talking about race in front of their sons. She reads about the fight for civil rights in The Crisis magazine while tucked into bed.
Larsen’s feelings about Irene are embedded in her narrative choices and in her chilled reserve, in the archness of her tone and in winding sentences that seem fairly benign until the final telling clause. Hall’s approach is warmer and less intellectually distancing. Onscreen, you like Irene right away, partly because there’s a human being (Tessa Thompson, no less) whose presence and persona instantly draw you to the character. But in little and big moments — in coyly and sharply delivered lines, in hesitant and abrupt movements — Hall and Thompson play with and subvert your sympathies, pushing you far enough away so that you can actually see, and become equally invested in, Clare too.
Thompson and Negga are both tremendous. Although Irene is the protagonist and the story is organized around her, the character’s complexities largely emerge in her relationship with Clare. The two reflect each other, but they’re in a hall of mirrors in which every pane presents a different image: Black, white, attentive wife, independent woman. Again and again, you watch these two characters discreetly or openly watching each other — Irene’s eyes are darting and demure, Clare’s searching and intense — creating a network of looks. And, as the story progresses, and as Irene continues on about her old friend’s attractiveness (“aren’t you lovely”), her gaze becomes persistent, troubled and erotic.
Hall fits an extraordinary amount into her version of this streamlined, deceptively simple story of two women whose lives intersect in ways they don’t or can’t fully grasp. Irene keeps looking at Clare, as if trying to solve a puzzle or as if she wanted something. But what does Irene desire? Clare’s beguiling beauty or her seductiveness, her wealth or her outward, presumably futile escape from the burdens of race? With restraint and bursts of plaintive emotion, Negga shows you how casually Clare receives attention — this is a woman accustomed to admiration — but she also shows you the performative quality of this blitheness, the moments when Clare drops whatever mask she’s wearing.
At one point early in the novel, Larsen writes of Irene: “She wished to find out about this hazardous business of ‘passing,’ this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.” There is so much embedded in those last three words — not entirely friendly! The mind reels, and the heart breaks, though, like Larsen, Hall maintains her cool. She bathes the movie in tenderness, but she remains faithful to the story’s brutal lack of sentimentality, which can make you gasp. Together with Thompson and Negga, Hall hauntingly brings to life characters forced to exist in that “not entirely friendly” space, with its cruelties, appearances, ambiguities and hard, merciless truths.
Rated PG-13 for violence. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. Watch on Netflix.