Rebecca Hall, well-known British actress and daughter of mixed-race American opera singer Maria Ewing, makes her directorial debut with Passing, out on Netflix this week. Adapted by Hall from Nella Larson’s novel of the same name, Passing tells the story of Reeny and Clare (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga), two high school friends, the latter of whom is now “passing” as white and married to a racist white man in 1920s Harlem.
Hall’s pedigree, as a theater actress at Cambridge and daughter of the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, shows in a film that feels very much like a stage play or a Masterpiece Theatre production; tasteful, erudite, meticulously staged and impeccably acted. Which is to say, it feels more like a film I know I should like than one I actually do. It’s so painfully mannered that it doesn’t have much room to breathe, where the characters talk more like people probably wrote in letters than they actually spoke in daily life. Where the lead character says things like “Clare? Why, I haven’t seen her in an unmentionable time.”
Passing sets up its premise early on when Thompson’s painfully proper Irene “Reeny” bumps into her old friend Clare (Negga), a modern cosmopolitan type who Reeny soon realizes has been “passing” as white. Complete with a husband, played by Alexander Skarsgard, who has “affectionally” nicknamed her “Nig” and who, when pressed on his racial views, specifies that he doesn’t just dislike “Negroes,” he hates them. Of course, he doesn’t realize that his own wife is African-American herself, and the situation has trapped Reeny in a kind of non-consensual passing, forced to keep up the ruse out of fidelity to Clare and fear for both their safety.
It’s an interesting, provocative situation on the face of it, but the movie basically treads water from there, basically maintaining a kind of narrative stasis until a grandly symbolic deus ex machina ending. Symbolic of what I’m not quite sure, but it seems to be going more for symbolism than realism. The flapper clothes and art deco stylings are all rendered in gauzy black and white photography, which, again, feels like a gesture of conspicuous symbolism. It invites us to ponder the artistic gesture of it all while keeping us at arm’s length from the actual feelings of its characters, who are trying to make their way in a multi-hued yet painfully colorist world. It feels less driven by the characters than by its creator making a choice.
The great André Holland, again playing a doctor in early 20th century New York just like he did in The Knick, shows up as Reeny’s husband, Brian, who seems intent on exposing his children to the horrors of race relations in America. Reeny, meanwhile, chairwoman of the Negro Welfare League, would prefer to shield them from all the gory details of the latest lynchings. This kind of thing takes up most of the movie, two characters taking opposite sides of various racial debates. Clare wants to “pass,” Reeny claims she’s happy just the way she is. Brian wants to move the family abroad, Reeny doesn’t. Issues are discussed! If you’ve seen a play before, you’ve seen these kinds of dialogues.
Reeny seems determined to avoid Clare, and Clare is equally determined to butt into her life, to experience the Harlem Renaissance she’s been missing while cloistered amongst the whites. Brian seems to have a thing for overtly sexual Clare, who represents something different than his white-gloved wife. Glances are exchanged. Words become terse. That’s about it.
These characters all seem so locked into “types,” so studiously crafted to represent issues in debates, that they don’t have much space to evolve or banter or simply exist as believable human beings. There’s one scene, a party at the Negro League where we meet Bill Camp’s louche intellectual, Hugh, in which the film finally feels like a living breathing thing rather than just a machine for setting up premises. It’s the lone scene where the characters seem like they just get to hang out and interact with one another rather than be stand-ins and debate props for various societal issues.
Passing seems so intent on being Symbolic and Dramatic and Meaningful that it forgets to just be, to try to live in the characters just a little before forcing them into various provocative dichotomies. When the Big Ending comes, it does so, predictably, feeling like a forced attempt at having something Very Dramatic Happen, rather than as a natural culmination of believable characters interacting. It’s certainly pregnant with meaning, though it would’ve been nice if it had been pregnant with being interesting.