Passing (2021)

Rebecca Hall | 1hr 38min

It isn’t always easy to fully conceptualise what we are seeing in Passing. It is a very deliberate choice from debut director Rebecca Hall to shoot much of the film with an incredibly shallow depth of field, letting everything but the target of her camera’s attention meld into a blur, but then she also takes this a step further in frequently letting her shots drift in and out of focus. The effect is obscuring, taking a dreamy hold over this interrogation of racial assimilation in 1920s New York where two old childhood friends who have taken separate paths find themselves back in each other’s lives. At the core of their relationship are thorny questions of identity, about as blurred as Eduard Grau’s hazy black-and-white cinematography or as fluid as Dev Hynes’ exquisitely jazzy piano score, where both Irene and Clare are uncomfortably pushed to consider the complicated realities that they would much rather avert their eyes from.

A splendid use of soft focus all through Passing, peering down indistinct hallways and looking up at the sun through tree leaves.

The choices these women take in how to present themselves are intrinsically wrapped up with matters of pride and insecurity, as even the decision to not “pass” as white is still inherently active. Irene is granted freedom of expression in choosing to live her life as a Black woman, but this is at least initially a far less tangible liberty than the wealth and class privilege Clare finds in choosing to suppress her African-American roots. Still, both are making sacrifices in following these paths, as we learn that Clare has married a white racist with no knowledge of her true heritage. If he were to discover the truth, the consequences might just be unbearable, and the fear of that hangs heavy over her lie.

In representing Irene and Clare as formal counterpoints, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga put in a pair of superbly mirrored performances, moving around each other like reflections of alternative lives either character could have had. Hall takes the time to capture the subtle glances and movements of both actresses, especially in Thompson’s shaking hands that reveal Irene’s underlying anxiety as a mother of young Black boys. Unlike her husband, Brian, she is reluctant to educate them on the prejudices of the world, and it is also with this sort of denial that she is able to handle her oppression. Clare’s decision to pass as white acts as a similar sort of denial to afford herself certain privileges, though every now and again Negga’s frivolous demeanour reveals small cracks in its façade, suggesting a far more sensitive understanding of the situation than anyone might expect.

A pair of duelling performances, possibly the best we have seen from both Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga.

In Hall’s delicate framing of these women within an unusually boxy aspect ratio and monochrome palette, there is a stylistic evocation of Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose films Ida and Cold War wrestle with similarly complex relationships subjugated by historical tragedies and divisions. When Irene or Clare are centred in the composition, they will often be surrounded by masses of negative space blurred out by the camera’s focus, or otherwise pushed to the bottom of the shot where this graceful minimalism imposes on their visual presence.

Few directors have revealed such a striking talent for blocking in their debut film, but Hall infuses such an existential sense of isolation in compositions like these.

Perhaps the most sharply captured shots in this film are those recurring parallel tracking shots that follow Irene out the front of her brownstone apartment building, always travelling in the same direction as she returns home. In this formal repetition Hall grounds her character to a specific location, though such clear-cut definitions are not so easy to determine elsewhere as she deliberately destabilises our perception of relationships and events. Irene’s insecurity about a potential affair unfolding between Clare and Brian might seem to imprint itself on a mirror capturing the two standing unusually close to each other, though as she gains a better view it is revealed to be little more than a trick of the light.

A formal use of parallel tracking shots out the front of Irene’s apartment, repeating at least half a dozen times through the film.

Such uncertainties continue to plague this narrative right up until the devastating finale that leaves three separate possibilities in our minds as to how exactly we reached this point, each one carrying implications for different characters as to the extreme lengths they would go when faced with the exposure of one’s true identity. As Irene states matter-of-factly at one point, “We’re all of us passing for something or other,” and it is in these attempts to reconcile who we are and how we wish to be seen that Hall tragically recognises a challenge which may not contain a singular, objectively beneficial solution.

Hall’s creation of 1920s New York through such elegant decor is astounding – the chairs, the indoor plants, the windows letting through bright light, all coming together to form a gorgeous interior.

Passing is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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