After leaving Harlem several years ago, Claire Bellew (Ruth Negga) reconnects with her childhood friend Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson). Claire is now passing as a white woman, and is married to John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgard), who is openly hostile to black people and is unaware that Claire is mixed-race. As Claire and Irene's lives begin to intertwine, Irene's own insecurities begin to resurface...
With a topic as delicate and fraught with complex readings as race and sexuality in the US, it's a miracle that 'Passing' has even made it to the screen. The source novel, written by Nella Larsen, was published in 1929 but its theme and topics have never been far from the cultural landscape of today. Racial passing, where the title takes its name from, may not necessarily be so openly spoken of today, but it's still investigated and informs cultural output. Movies like 'The Human Stain', 'Europa Europa', 'Devil In A Blue Dress', and TV shows as varied as 'M*A*S*H*' and 'Law & Order' have all examined the practice to one degree or another, but 'Passing' is different for a number of reasons.
Not only does it drive straight at the topic, it also folds in questions of sexuality to it as well. Both characters, played wonderfully by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, are so wrapped up in themselves and so heavily guarded that it's almost impossible to reach them. Tessa Thompson's character, Reenie, is so buttoned-down and so sure of herself and her choices that it feels certain that something - someone, in this case - is going to make her question everything, including her sexuality. Likewise, Ruth Negga's character exists in a world that is so built on a falsehood that when she is given the chance to be herself, you begin to wonder if there's a chance she's merely exploring it or if she's embracing it.
Because of this questioning and the walled-off nature of both characters, we get the sense that we're watching 'Passing' through a prism. Everything is held at arm's length, and the characters themselves dare not interrogate or unearth their motivations. It makes for some incredibly tense scenes, and you almost watch 'Passing' with your breath held. Yet, when it does allow itself a moment to relax, it really is something to behold. There's a fantastic scene with Tessa Thompson and Bill Camp, who plays an urbane author and family friend, that really tries to get incisive with it in a way. Yet, the rest of the time, it's all so buttoned-up and impenetrable that it never really lifts off as it should.
As mentioned, the twin performances of Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson are incredible, and Rebecca Hall's script and direction utilises both their physical presence and beauty, and their ability to subtly move and shape a scene with a glance or a line-reading. 'Passing' is very much made by subtle choices, even if the choice to film it in black and white might seem heavy-handed. It's about the only thing in this that is heavy-handed, everything else is done with such a delicate and considered hand. For a directorial debut, Rebecca Hall has made bold and strong choices here and it's to her credit that she began with this. We can only hope she gets the opportunity to work as a director again, because she clearly has things to say and has a unique way of approaching them.
'Passing' is a movie that requires patience, as it moves at such a slow pace and some of the acting is done at a minute level that it's almost impossible to see. Yet, there is something truly unique here, and if you let it, it's a fascinating experience to behold.