A serviceable adaptation of a revolutionary novel, ‘Passing’ is pleasing to the senses but ultimately hollow.
Two women spot one another from across a wide room. There is recognition in the face of both, but it feels off. Reenie Redfield (Tessa Thompson) has taken herself to a nice lunch after a long day of Christmas shopping. Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) is a guest at the hotel while her husband is on business. Reenie and Clare spent time together in their childhood as two mixed-race women and friends. But as time has progressed, Reenie finds herself living as a Black woman in Harlem with her husband (Andre Holland) and two kids, working with local Black activist groups, living a moderately wealthy life. Clare, however, has moved out of New York and married a racist and wealthy white man (Alexander Skarsgard). As the title of the film implies, Clare is Passing as a white woman.
Written and directed by debut filmmaker Rebecca Hall, Passing is based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. Yet while Larsen’s novel was groundbreaking at its time for a unique depiction of race and its queer subtext, the film from Rebecca Hall feels a bit warmed over. Hall’s screenplay reveres Larsen’s text, but it is at the consequence of leaving the subtext as subtext and removing the interiority of Larsen’s writing.
The efforts of nearly everyone behind the scenes on Passing, with every below-the-line credit going above and beyond. The film, shot in black and white and set in the 1920s with impeccable detail, looks magnificent. But the beautiful exterior leaves a hollow interior. Nella Larsen’s novel was a game-changer for its time, but Hall’s script and direction keep the chasteness of the book without the subtlety and love. Rebecca Hall (a woman with Black ancestry that passes as white) does her best with the material. But in keeping religiously to the source novel, the themes are lost.
Thankfully, Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson can pick up all of the missing pieces with their performances. Reenie watches Clare charm her way through life via a lie about her identity. Clare, meanwhile, watches Reenie operate in the world happily as a Black woman. These two narratives play out identically to the book, but we can’t read the minds of the characters, something Larsen succeeds at. Instead, the actresses have to carry their intentions through their emotions. This leaves the end of the film, a jarring and beautiful moment, far less mysterious than the novel offers.
In a vacuum, Passing is a beautiful story that is told with care. Most of my complaints are nitpicks, truthfully. But debuting at Sundance in 2021 and featuring some very of-the-moment stories, Passing feels traditional in ways that aren’t needed. Everyone here is trying their best to tell the story effectively, but perhaps a classic adaptation of Larsen isn’t what 2021 needs. That said, I’m a white man from the suburbs. Perhaps you should look elsewhere for opinions on Black art from women.