Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga lead ‘gorgeously crafted’ period drama Passing (Image: Edu Grau/Courtesy of Sundance Institut)

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Actress Rebecca Hall makes her feature directorial debut with this handsome and enigmatic adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing.

Set in the 1920s, a well-to-do African-American woman named Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) is going about her business while shopping in New York, choosing to take a brief respite in a majestic hotel tea room.

Once sat inside she has a chance encounter with a vibrant African-American school friend named Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), who is ‘passing’ as a white woman and is married to a racist rich white man (Alexander Skarsgard) who has no idea of his wife’s true ethnic identity.

While Irene too could ‘pass’ as a white woman, she instead lives in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood and is married to a Black doctor named Brian (Andre Holland), with whom she shares two children.

As Irene and Clare begin to spend more time together, the differences and similarities between the two women come rising to the surface, as well as the blurred lines between multiple boundaries in their life, regarding ethnic identity, sexuality, gender, and class.

Ruth Negga (left) and Tessa Thompson (right) star in Rebecca Hall's literary adaptation of Passing
(Image: Edu Grau/Courtesy of Sundance Institut)

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Delicately photographed in black-and-white with tenderness from cinematographer Edu Grau which only serves its ambiguities, Passing is a feast for the senses with its perfectly calibrated visual style but also utilisation of period-friendly jazz music and a haunting score from Devonté Hynes.

Hall has also clearly embraced the enigmatic side of her directing to go along with her very naturalistic yet cautious script, which never spells out the themes too much for the viewer, instead choosing to leave nuggets of meaning to digest about the women’s stories.


Tessa Thompson hits a career-high as Irene here, a woman offering pride, doubt, repressed sexuality, and grappling with colourism and classism whether knowingly or unknowingly. Despite being as radiant as ever, Thompson also evokes old Hollywood stars with her well-judged internal performance.

Meanwhile, Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga continues her mesmerising craft here with the blonde, seductive, but clearly unhappy Clare. Given even less insight into Clare’s desires than Irene’s here, Clare is even more of an unknowable and performative presence, but her warm and melancholic connection Irene feels all the more powerful for it.

Moonlight star Andre Holland is also reliably strong as Irene’s noble husband who is keen to give his children a realistic view of the harsh mores of their world and finds resistance from his wife.

Elsewhere, Bill Camp offers another of his mannered supporting turns as the closest thing to a confidante that Irene gets, while Alexander Skarsgard once again nails a role as a despicable and unnerving husband figure for Clare, the concerns around whom also linger off-camera despite his limited screen time.

Rebecca Hall, the director of black-and-white period drama Passing
(Image: Jeff Vespa/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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Utilising the beloved literary source's powerful content and continuing the few cinematic examinations of the topic found in the likes of classic melodramas Imitation of Life and Pinky, Hall has united with her two marvellous lead actresses to craft a thought-provoking piece on a number of levels.

It will likely prove too meditative, restrained and cryptic for some – especially with a late ominous turn – but Passing continues to keep a delicate hold on its characters until its beautifully crafted final frames.

Ultimately, this is a stunning feature directorial debut for Rebecca Hall, who clearly has an eye for sumptuous and layered storytelling.

Verdict

Passing is a gorgeously crafted literary adaptation from first-time feature director Rebecca Hall, who provides career-best work from Tessa Thompson and a luminous performance from Ruth Negga.

Passing premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2021 but does not currently have a UK release date.