‘Passing’ Review: Rebecca Hall’s Subtle, Provocative Directorial Debut

‘Passing’ Review: Rebecca Hall’s Subtle, Provocative Directorial Debut


Jessica Kiang

Eduard Grau

A superbly performed study of racialized longing and feminine dissatisfaction in 1920s New York, lit by searing intelligence and compassion.

t starts in sweltering heat; it ends in freezing weather. And in between, as the temperature gradually drops, Rebecca Hall’sPassing,” based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, calmly brings the diffuse racial landscape of prohibition-era New York City into crystalline, gorgeously shot focus. This radically intimate exploration of the desperately fraught concept of “passing” — being Black but pretending to be white — ought to be too ambitious for a first-time filmmaker, but Hall’s touch is unerring, deceptively delicate, quiet and immaculate, like that final fall of snow.

On a hot summer day, Irene (Tessa Thompson) is downtown on an errand. Her visible discomfort, the way she tries to retract into herself, to hide behind the gauzy brim of a hat that cuts her eyeline in two, is a silent evocation of how uncomfortable she is under the gazes of the white people around her. This time, anyway, she is mostly projecting: No one takes much notice, nothing too alarming happens. But then suddenly, stepping into the full beam of all that projection and sometimes catching the light, there’s Clare (Ruth Negga), a childhood friend visiting from Chicago, now unrecognizably glamorous, with a perfect swoop of blonde hair and arched, lightened brows framing silent-movie-It-Girl eyes…

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