Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Movie Review: Passing (2021)

A drama about race and belonging, Passing adopts an ethereal touch but has only a slight story to tell.

In New York City of the 1920s, two light-skinned Black women meet for the first time since their childhood days in Chicago. Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives in Harlem and is married to Dr. Brian Redfield (André Holland). Clare (Ruth Negga) has lived her entire adult life pretending to be white, and is now married to self-proclaimed racist John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgård). On the day they meet, Irene is also passing as white in Manhattan, and John does not notice.

The always lively Clare pretends to be happy, but she is actually miserable living her lie. She starts visiting Irene and John at their Harlem home, and befriends their two boys. She also joins their social circuit, attending parties and club events where white liberal New Yorkers including author Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp) mingle with Blacks. Irene's jealousy bubbles up when she notices John is happiest when Clare is around.

The directorial debut of Rebecca Hall, who also wrote the screenplay, Passing adapts the 1929 book by Nella Larsen with an intriguing sense of style. The wispy black and white cinematography, courtesy of Eduard Grau, lyrically blurs the lines between race, identity, and culture. And within the era-appropriate boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, either the background or foreground are allowed to fade out of focus, Hall toying with mixtures of clarity and concealment in the same frame.

Unfortunately, the content does not live up to the packaging. The overarching theme settles on obvious lies we tell ourselves in the quest for happiness. Irene carries the familiar burden of middle class wife and mother, alternating between being satisfied and arguing with Brian about upbringing and uprooting. Doubts about her marriage's stability barely evolve. Meanwhile Clare has spent her life smiling too much and trying too hard to deny who she is, and the weight of lies is starting to push down on her fake vivaciousness. She may be more expressive about the hurt she has caused, but the Clare of the final act is more resigned than enlightened.

As the narrative plays on the same notes, most of the activity happens inside Irene's mind, as she wonders if she has made the right choices and whether Clare is a threat to avoid or a friend to embrace. The angles created but not exploited include a faint current of attraction between the two women, and upper-class white people satisfying hip urges by plugging into Black culture. With snippets replacing substance, the pacing is ponderous, and the film's 99 minutes drag on.

Both Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are soulful in performances tugging at the edge of sorrow. André Holland provides Brian with world weariness as a father of two young boys, discerning with crystalline clarity the horror of America's race problem, and exasperated that others are oblivious.

Passing adopts breezy airiness as it waves at important topics, and just passes by without engaging.



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