Passing – SUNDANCE 2021 Review

Actress Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with Passing, based on a short novel by Nella Larsen. As expected, the film is sophisticated and regal as it confronts and reflects Hall’s own biracial family roots. Despite these superlative technical elements, the overall stilted and oddly structured adaptation lacks emotional momentum.

The film opens with the eye-catching blinding white of New York. We’re shortly introduced to Irene as she fades into focus. Tessa Thompson is a lovely screen-presence and her animated eyes are splendidly textured with the glorious black and white photography, however she fails to get a firm handle on her character’s volcanic emotions as she has a chance reunion with Clare. Clare is a childhood friend who has passed as white to infiltrate New York high society with her racist husband (predictably played by Alexander Skarsgard). Ruth Negga commits to the old-school melodrama of Clare’s theatrically and her huffing dictation is a joy to witness. The bulk of the film charts Irene’s ruminative reconciliation with identity and its impact on her family and children. Andre Holland is the authoritative husband and father who tries to instill real world knowledge and honesty into the relationship. His relationship with Irene doesn’t deliver the excruciating tension necessary with how flatly the script plays it out.

As previously mentioned, this is visually astonishing and impeccably crafted . Hall’s direction is admirably bold with its impressionistic and glistening transitions. Scenes almost melt and mold into each other which makes them more interesting than they truly are because the flaccid script never matches that level of expressionism. It’s all surprisingly stagey with themes stumbling and tangling in the overcooked dialogue. The repressed sexuality of the women is implied but faintly registers. That said, it’s still a delicate film and clearly personal for Rebecca Hall which makes her a director to keep on your radar. [B+]

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