Rebecca Hall’s debut feature film as a writer and director, Passing (2021), is a delicate and deeply moving drama. It took Hall’s experience as an actor to properly adapt Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name. Hall understands the magnitude of what an actor can accomplish in the proper shot to convey all of the interiority of Larsen’s text. Hall’s direction isn’t stagey though, it’s actually quite cinematically poetic.
Reviews have been lamenting the lack of a “message” in Passing. There’s this expectation that, given the subject matter, Passing will have something profoundly explicit to say with regards to identity, race and gender that will help propel a more politically progressive agenda. However Passing does do these things and does them very well. Passing just isn’t the kind of “message” movie one expects Hollywood to churn out where the audience is taken by the hand and told exactly what to think and feel.
The commentary on race and gender in Passing is rendered instead in the intimate moments between Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). These momentous themes are animated in gestures, a glance, a bit of dialogue and the simple equation of the shot/reverse shot. Rebecca Hall has made a beautiful film about the relationship between two women and she never betrays that. Hall simply expects viewers to put what they see into the broader political context suggested by these images. Audience participation on an intellectual level is required to understand and appreciate the full impact of Passing, and it’s a welcome change of pace.
Though Passing is about two women, it’s deeply grounded in the perspective of just one of them: Irene. For the first half an hour of Passing everything on the soundtrack is motivated diegetically. Then, as Irene daydreams of Clare, seeing her beauty through the sparkling of a lens flare, a light jazzy theme is heard pattered out on a piano. From this moment on Passing will drift into Irene’s fantasies for the briefest of moments. These interludes aren’t just signified by the piano theme but also by more expressionistic cinematographic tactics like a lens flare or a slow dolly shot.
This technique punctuates dramatic shifts in the relationship between Clare and Irene as well. A general shift in the lighting throughout the film also gives the impression that the skin of these characters is gradually growing darker as Clare immerses herself more and more in Harlem culture and as Irene comes to grips with the violent reality she’s been attempting to shield her sons from. These subtle cues suggest broader themes beyond the two leads while simultaneously drawing the viewer deeper into their intimate relationship.
Rebecca Hall ends the film by embracing ambiguity. Clare’s demise is a complete mystery and it remains that way as the camera glides higher and higher in an aerial shot through falling snow until the picture is entirely whited out. Thus Passing ends as it lived; full of nuance, human frailty and mystery. Passing isn’t a film about answers to difficult questions, it is about formulating the right questions.