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?