Passing review: Rebecca Hall’s debut feature is intensely beautiful

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 (Netflix)
(Netflix)

This writing/directing debut from actress Rebecca Hall is based on the wonderful and still-shocking 1929 novel by bi-racial US author, Nella Larsen. Shot in black and white – in a ratio (4:3) that wafts us straight into the past – the film’s loveliness cuts like a knife. The two main characters, former schoolfriends Irene and Clare (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga; both mesmerising), are flapper-era yummy mummies. They’re welcomed in elegant New York venues, but only because the staff and clientele take the women’s light skin at face value. Equally in the dark is Clare’s Caucasian husband (Alexander Skarsgard). He calls her “N*g”, but that’s his idea of a little joke. What will he do when he finds out his wife isn’t “white as a lily”?

Hall clearly wants her movie to be more than a passing fancy and, in terms of cinematography and performances, it’s truly extraordinary. Dark-haired, progressive Irene, and blonde, apolitical Clare bump into each other in a sun-dappled hotel restaurant and their reunion undulates with thrilling ambiguity. Later, an ingenious tracking shot makes us feel the full weight of the dark and heavy furniture in Irene’s brownstone house. Hall and her director of photography, Eduard Grau, are poets, pure and simple.

The script is also impressive, though it loses focus towards the end. In Larsen’s book, the big revelation about insouciant Irene is that she’s conservative with a small c. This woman may be Black, smart, independent and savvy, but she’s also obsessed with respectability and will do anything to hang on to her doctor husband. The film’s Irene is a more tremulous creature, helplessly attracted to Clare and prone to fainting and taking day-time naps. By foregrounding Irene’s confusion, Hall drains the plot of momentum. Increasingly, we can’t tell what this desperate housewife wants and, as a result, seeing everything from Irene’s point of view becomes a bit of a chore. The bold and reckless Clare seems so much more interesting. If only we had access to her thoughts.

 (Netflix)
(Netflix)

Nothing, however, can dilute the intensity of the basic set-up and the male characters – including Irene’s witty but frustrated husband, Brian (Andre Holland), and Irene’s smug male best friend, Hugh (Bill Camp) – prove satisfyingly knotty. What all these figures have in common is the desire for a quick-fix escape and when they discuss the lure of the exotic, and what it means to go slumming, Passing feels ridiculously pertinent to our times.

Hall’s first film suggests systemic racism makes imposters of us all. It comes tantalisingly close to being a classic and I can’t wait to see what Hall – who’s still only 39 - does next.

In select cinemas now and on Netflix from November 10. 98mins, cert 12A

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