Elegant from start to finish but the hint of melancholia that is present throughout might feel a little too much to bear especially in the later scenes of the film. Director Rebecca Hall has expressed that she had been wanting to make this film for a long time, something we hear from many first-time directors but this really did feel like a labour of love and despite the sadness, it was in a good way.
On a hot summer’s day, after shopping for her son, Irene, by chance meets an old school friend, Clare. At first this meeting is full of joy and curiosity especially as Clare looks very different. But as soon as Clare’s husband arrives, his blatant racist views shatter any hope of rekindling a friendship. Clare has been passing for white and her husband doesn’t know her true background, while Irene married a doctor and stayed in Harlem. Over time Clare becomes a frequent visitor to Irene’s home and social circles, but this soon puts a strain on Irene’s own happiness.
Filming in black and white was a brilliant idea, as it provides two ways of looking at the film and story. The fact that not everything is as it seems, that Clare is lying to her husband and that Irene isn’t as happy as she appears to be, makes the black and white images stand out even more so. There is no distraction, we see the characters expressions clearer, we cut through to the characters emotions. Everything is in black and white but the actual situations aren’t, right down to the dramatic end.
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play their roles to perfection and this might be because we haven’t seen either actress playing these characters before. Irene, so reserved at times, not quite wanting to take risks. She forges ahead with her committee, organising elaborate parties, working behind the scenes but then just quietly watches and waits while she suspects her husband of having an affair with Clare. Negga takes on Clare with gusto, a woman caught in the between the life she misses and the ones she might not actually want anymore. Clare is the one who is willing to risk everything for a few hours of joy. She shares her thoughts and opinions loudly even when she shouldn’t. Her double life is dragging her down and her moments in Harlem are her only escape. There is a sadness in both women, Clare for maybe regretting ‘passing’ and feeling stifled in her life with her husband. She seems jealous of Irene but craves her friendship yet she doesn’t once try to reassure her that she isn’t having an affair with her husband. The relationship isn’t as clear as you’d hope and there is no conclusion to this issue at all, which just makes Irene’s story that much more painful, there is no closure.
There is beautiful imagery throughout with some innovative framing, looking and feeling elegant throughout with a story that is, unfortunately timeless, Passing is a solid debut from Rebecca Hall.
Passing is playing at BFI London Film Festival 6-17 October and will be on Netflix 10 November