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'Passing': Tough subject, sensitive treatment

Ruth Negga, left, and Tessa Thompson play childhood

Ruth Negga, left, and Tessa Thompson play childhood friends who reunite as adults in "Passing." Credit: Sundance Institute/Edu Grau

THE MOVIE "Passing"

WHEN | WHERE In theaters and streaming Wednesday on Netflix.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Actor Rebecca Hall makes her feature filmmaking debut with "Passing," an adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen.

The movie, playing in limited theatrical release and streaming on Netflix beginning Wednesday, stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as childhood friends who reunite as adults when they run into each other at a cafe in New York City.

Both women are mixed race: Thompson's Irene Redfield identifies as African-American, living in Harlem, married to a doctor (André Holland) and the mother of two young boys. Negga's Clare Bellew passes as white — she's married to a wealthy racist (Alexander Skarsgård).

Shot in black and white and captured in the boxlike 4:3 aspect ratio, the movie depicts the fallout that emerges from this reunion, as Clare begins to spend more time around the Redfield family, and Irene finds that her own self-perceptions are tested.

MY SAY This is extraordinarily difficult material for any movie adaptation. It's a heavily interior story and one that relies upon a wealth of sociocultural context in the ways it evokes important and murky questions about identity construction, class biases, repressed sexuality and more.

That Hall chose to pursue it for her directorial debut — not to mention she wrote the screenplay — suggests a degree of confidence that could mark the arrival of a significant new cinematic voice.

In Hall's hands, "Passing" keeps the focus on the actors tasked with distilling and communicating these complicated bonds. She does so through several smart filmmaking choices.

By closing off the edges of the screen, capturing the movie's entire world within the constraints of the 4:3 box, she can precisely direct the audience's focus. Close-ups become more stark: Thompson and Negga respond well to this by giving almost silent movie-level performances, conveying even the most transformative moments through their reactions.

The monochromatic color scheme imbues the picture with a degree of impressionistic timeliness that would have been lost through a more literal rendering. The sun pierces through the clouds; shadows suggest great, deep-seated ambiguities.

The movie takes place mostly in Harlem during the 1920s, but it seems to more precisely unfold somewhere beneath our surface reality, within the world that is shaped by our sublimated, unexpressed desires.

The filmmaker purposefully resists easy answers and accessible dramatic beats. There's nothing close to a conventional structure here, and the extent to which the movie works for a particular audience member has a lot to do with one's willingness to live in the very specific space Hall establishes.

But in another sense "Passing" is rooted in a harsh and uncompromising reality. The movie offers a great deal of wisdom in the extent to which it depicts some of the most fundamental contradictions of life in a distinctly American context.

There's a very specific framework in the stories of Irene and Clare, but a broader scope, too: The interplay between the comfort of the familiar and the allure of escape. Questions of how we construct our identities, and what societal norms allow for us. The all-too-human need to be sheltered from life's traumas versus the necessity of confronting and preparing for them. It's all recognizable in any context, at any time.

The stars bring it all home by understanding how to say a lot, while also saying very little. There's a great deal of subtext in every scene they share, and a real sense of tension. They're both distinctly human in their needs and desires and avatars for these larger themes. It's a master class of acting.

BOTTOM LINE "Passing" is an impressive adaptation of difficult material.

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