Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Passing: Objet d’Art

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing.

Making her directorial debut with an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, Rebecca Hall – whose father was the English stage director and longtime artistic director of the National Theatre – demonstrates both a gift for coaching complex, nuanced work out of her actors (not so surprising in an actress as splendid as she is) and a fine eye. Shot in black and white by Edu Grau, Passing has the free-style, immaculately composed look of photographs from its era.  It’s beautiful to watch, though its hushed pictorialism doesn’t quite capture the bustle of uptown Manhattan in the Harlem Renaissance period. Hall, at least at this point, isn’t especially comfortable with crowd scenes. (A densely populated dance party never comes to life.) She’s a chamber-piece filmmaker: what she’s great at is scenes with two and three characters, where she can focus on the details of their interactions and their emotional trajectories. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga play Irene and Clare, high-school friends from Chicago who become reacquainted in New York, where Irene is a Harlem socialite married to a doctor (André Holland) and the light-skinned Clare to a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who doesn’t know she’s Black. Irene – or Renie, as Clare calls her – is both curious about and unsettled by their random meeting in a midtown hotel café. Clare has entered a strange, forbidden world that Renie has never desired; at least, she hasn’t owned up to desiring it. She’s been contented to live the life of a society queen whose milieu includes white visitors like the writer Hugh (Bill Camp), whom she can banter with as an equal because he’s elected to come up to her neighborhood. She sees Harlem, where she lives very well, as a cocoon that protects her two young boys; she doesn’t like it when her husband, John, who despises America and wants them to move to a less racist country, educates their sons about lynching, even though the eldest, Junior (Ethan Barrett), has already had the experience of being the recipient of racial insults. When Clare presses her friendship, Renie doesn’t understand it: if Clare sought white society so fervently that she’s lied about herself to obtain it, why does she long for reconnection with an old friend and a welcome into her world?

Larsen was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement who wrote one other novel and three books of short stories; Passing is the work she’s known for, though not well known enough. It’s a slim, haunting, psychologically dense novel about the dangers of crossing the color bar in the epoch between the world wars, when, ironically, Black artists – at least, in New York – were making unprecedented strides toward recognition and independence. (The two-faced quality of those strides is infamous. This was the era when white audiences flocked to see legendary entertainers of color like Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong perform at the Cotton Club, but the club was closed to Black audiences.) Larsen writes good dialogue, and the book already feels like a movie when you read it, or perhaps like a play; Hall, who did the screenplay herself, has barely had to change a thing.

In the opening scene, in a store, Irene hands a dropped toy to some white ladies who clearly don’t notice that she’s not one of them; it’s her ability to get away with it that emboldens her to walk into the elegant hotel coffee shop.  Thompson is terrific – you can feel the character’s anxiety and terror of discovery, and also the thrill it gives her. Of course there’s no way in 2021 that a white actress could be cast in this role or in the role of Clare, but Thompson is unmistakably Black, so we’re being asked to suspend our disbelief. The costume designer, Marci Rodgers, has almost veiled Thompson in a silken dome of a hat, but we have to pretend we don’t notice the color of her skin, and considering that the movie is all about the color of Renie’s skin, and Clare’s, it’s a problem that Hall hasn’t solved. Thompson is marvelous in the part, though; I wouldn’t have wanted to miss what she brings to it. And the more Clare imposes their old friendship on Renie, the more layered the performance becomes. Some of the details are subtle. Thompson has a not-quite-defined relationship with her maid, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins) – sometimes companionable, sometimes high-handed – that suggests a discomfort with their class difference. When Clare becomes a frequent guest, her presence has the effect of relaxing Zu; in one scene the two women sit together in the sun like a pair of friends. And Clare’s effect on John is surprising, to Irene and to us. Before he’s met her John disapproves of the time his wife spends with Clare, whom he mistrusts (and clearly the disapproval is political). But her warmth and unconventionality charm him, which put Irene on her guard – though it’s her husband and not her friend who sets her on edge when she watches them together. Clare charms her sons too; when their father mentions her that she’s coming to visit one afternoon and she doesn’t show up, they act as if the adults have denied them a promised treat. Clare is a complication that Irene hasn’t made room for in her life, and she makes it clear that that life, with all its material and social satisfactions, is actually unsettled.

With her Ethiopian looks, Ruth Negga is such an exotic camera presence that it’s easier to accept the premise of her passing for white – she doesn’t look like anyone else. Negga, the extraordinary actress who played Ophelia opposite Rory Kinnear in the 2010 National Theatre Hamlet and who singlehandedly made the social-problem picture Loving worth watching, is amazing here. She has a trace of a southern accent, but you don’t question the plausibility of a Chicago girl who sounds a little like a Tennessee Williams heroine because it’s part of Clare’s theatricality; she’s reinvented herself, after all.  (Her soft, light tones counter Thompson’s rich contralto, just as Clare’s flightiness contrasts Renie’s pragmatism.) The swirl of platinum blonde hair that dips down over her left earring, the fluttering anxiety that morphs mysteriously into jocular good humor, the slightly ironic smile – they’re like colors in the palette she’s prepared for her performance. Sometimes she seems to have borrowed that accent from Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, and at those times it’s easy to imagine what a great Blanche she’d make.

André Holland brings his sexual warmth – so apparent in the last section of Moonlight – to the role of John, but it’s a more reflective piece of acting, with reserves of anger. I wasn’t sold on Bill Camp as the fey (married) writer Hugh; Camp is just about my favorite character actor in American movies and on TV, but here he seems miscast. Skarsgård has a one-note part, but Antoinette Crowe-Legacy makes a strong impression as Irene’s friend Felise – another raving beauty. The way these women look in Rodgers’s exquisite hats and dresses and scarves (these are the best costumes I’ve seen on the screen this year) is part of Hall’s and Grau’s scheme for shooting them – for sculpting them in the frame and lending them exactly the kind of movie-star glamor that no Black actress received in Hollywood until Lena Horne in the 1940s.

Hall botches the ending, but it’s a tricky scene: Larsen is deliberately unclear about what happens, and I think you probably need more experience to pull off this kind of narrative ambiguity. What she does pull off, over and over again, with Grau’s help, is the delicate showiness of the visual style.  It’s very self-conscious, and that self-consciousness keeps the viewer at a distance. I found Passing extremely impressive without being moved by it, for all the emotional shadings in Thompson’s and Negga’s performances, and Holland’s too. It’s something of an objet d’art.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

1 comment:

  1. A most intriguing take on this new film work, I was attracted to the notion of finding it impressive without being moved by it, that in itself is a salient insight. Nice piece S.V. By the way, Alien Welcoming Station is me, Donald Brackett. Kudos.