“Passing” follows the unexpected reunion of two high school friends, whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities.

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut has roots in her past, specifically a family background where her mother was biracial and she and others had ‘passed’ as white at certain points. I wasn’t familiar with the terminology around passing, so as much as anything, ‘Passing’ (as in the movie) was an education in something that I’d never came across. The movie is loosely based on a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen which centres on African-Americans who have light enough skin to be considered white, hence the term passing. In the America of that time period (and to an extent, even now), there would be advantages to passing, but it also raises complex questions about whether this betrays your upbringing and who you are.

The film stars Tessa Thompson (Irene) and Ruth Negga (Clare) as two childhood friends who meet in adulthood by chance at a hotel. Irene is married to a black doctor (André Holland) and is unfamiliar with the concept of passing, but the lighter skinned Clare has married a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) and ‘passes’ all the time. As the two woman bond and find themselves drawn into each other’s lives more and more, the complications and disparities between how they’ve chosen to live their lives comes to the fore, particularly as their husbands are drawn into their orbit. Whilst I found the subject matter interesting and the performances are very good from Thompson and Negga, I wasn’t as engaged by ‘Passing’ as I’d hoped to be. Perhaps it was the distant style that Hall adopts that makes it quite difficult to emotionally invest, but I found it meandered more than it had a sense of purpose.

Passing’ is a handsomely crafted period drama and will likely attract deserved awards attention for Thompson and Negga, but I didn’t feel the overall story quite came to life as much as those performances did.

Rating: 3/5

Directed By: Rebecca Hall

Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp and Gbenga Akinnagbe

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