Much of the drama in Rebecca Hall’s debut feature, based on a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, is elevated by passing glances and comments overheard at gatherings. The term Passing refers to light skinned African-Americans who are deemed white to unsuspecting individuals. It’s a disguise that Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga) is living in and during the early moments of the picture, she has a chance encounter with Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson). They are childhood friends who’ve lost touch and their reconnection leaves Irene bewildered. She’s never left Harlem and has married successful but weary doctor Brian (Andre Holland). Irene fills her days with civic duties and some nights entertaining an author (Bill Camp) who’s endeared himself to the black community (though perhaps not for purely endearing reasons).
While Irene seems to have a nice upper class life going in a 1920s era filled with despair, a closer look is warranted. Her marriage is bordering on loveless. The couple struggle with proper child rearing to their two boys in a subplot that’s barely there (it should have been either explored in greater detail or dropped altogether).
Clare’s sudden presence reminds Irene of some chinks in the armor of her perceived blissful existence. That goes both ways. Clare is married to a vocal racist (Alexander Skarsgard) who has no clue what lies beneath. She’s a free spirit whose wings appear to grow when placed back in familiar territory. One of the strengths with this screenplay is that Clare’s reaction to her bonds rekindling is unexpected. Instead of substantiating her choice to pass as Caucasian, it fills her with a longing to return to her roots. In doing so, a strange and often unclear romantic dynamic emerges between Clare, Irene, and Brian. Jealousies and frailties come to the forefront. And those passing glances and comments take on deeper meaning as time goes by. Irene’s perception of Clare soon turns as cold as the wintry night air while Brian’s has blown in a warmer and cozier direction.
This is a picture that sneaks up on you with how powerful it ultimately becomes. Hall, a fine actress recently seen in The Night House, has her own complicated and for years unknown racial history that surely influenced her delicate handling of the subject matter. The performances are terrific across the board. This is not a story that over explains character motivation and it’s sometimes up to Thompson and Negga in particular to convey what’s really cooking in this tinderbox of a stew. They achieve that mission and Hall’s filmmaking prowess (shot in black and white with an aspect ratio of its era) accentuates that. By the climax, we are presented potential outcomes that occur in a flash and you may find yourself pondering them far longer. It all passes for a richly rewarding experience.
***1/2 (out of four)