"Passing" is a mesmerizing story about friends leading false lives
Starring Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, and Alexander Skarsgard. Written and directed by Rebecca Hall. Now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox. 98 minutes. PG-13 (U.S. rating).
Actor and now filmmaker Rebecca Hall, a child of mixed-race parentage, calls the 1929 Nella Larsen novella behind her directorial debut a “puzzle box.”
So is this mesmerizing movie, a Sundance 2021 hit which examines identity and desire on multiple levels, from race to class to sex. It's the story of two Black women who are able to "pass" as white because of their light skin colour.
"Passing" is filmed in radiant black and white and boxy aspect ratio. It moodily evokes its time and place, the Jazz Age era of 1920s New York, as does composer Devonté Hynes’ jazz piano on the soundtrack.
Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga star as erstwhile friends Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, who have mastered the era’s social necessity of fitting into white society by means of deception. Once close childhood friends but separated by geography (Clare moved to Chicago), they meet by chance in a Manhattan cafe and a reconnection of sorts happens.
Back home in Harlem, Irene is married to a doctor (André Holland). She can be more true to herself, living comfortably and apparently happily. She tells an acquaintance, "Things aren't always what they seem."
Clare has become a master of subterfuge. She's married to a racist white business tycoon (Alexander Skarsgard) who believes that Clare is also white.
Irene chafes at the dishonesty necessary to placate whites, while Clare delights in it — but both are leading false lives, complicated by more than skin colour. 🌓
(This review was originally published in the Toronto Star.)