“Passing” is something of an understated tease.
Actress Rebecca Hall, just seen in “The Night House,” makes her writing/directing debut a melodrama about race that hints that it might be about something more than fair-skinned Black women — one “passing” for white, the other appalled by it. It isn’t.
Filmed in the washed-out monotone of digital black and white (over-lit, with limited contrasts compared with celluloid black and white), this staid, not-quite-still-life adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel is an unflashy recreation of “Renaissance” era Harlem that comes to life thanks to its leads, who bury the spark of their connection beneath the Middle Class manners of the aspirational New York of the 1920s.
The best scene in the film is the first. An upper middle class woman (Tessa Thompson) shops and copes with a city heat wave on her own. She confers with sales clerks, hails a taxi and settles into a seat in the cool (pre-air conditioning) tea room of a swank hotel. But her stylish hat is pulled down low, covering her eyes and hair. She makes little eye contact. That’s something furtive and tentative about her demeanor.
Irene is Black, but so fair skinned she might “pass,” and we get the notion she might be doing it right now.
That’s when she makes eye contact across the tea room. The blonde looking her up and down? That’s an old friend. That’s Clare, who knew Irene as “Reenie” back when they were in school together, back before Clare (Ruth Negga of “Loving”) changed her hair, moved away and married a white man in Chicago.
And even though Irene thinks better of it, Clare insists she join her in her hotel room to catch up, have a little (illegal) nip of liquor.
Reenie has…questions. “Does he…know?”
Oh no. The businessman Clare married has no idea. And when Reenie and we meet John (Alexander Skarsgård) we can see he doesn’t have a clue. He’s even given his wife a clueless nickname, noting how she’s “grown darker and darker” over time.
“Nig,” he calls her.
Guarded but repelled, Reenie tries to avoid deeper reconnection with Clare when she and her husband move back to New York. But there’s no resisting her, and soon she’s “passing” in Reenie’s social circles, at the jazz clubs whites like to frequent in Harlem, joining the liberal writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp) for high balls and bon mots, spending lots of time with Reenie and her overworked physician husband Brian (André Holland).
Reenie may smile and accept this, but Thompson (“Creed,” “Selma,” “Sylvie’s Love”) never lets go of the character’s unease, the “risks” she sees her old friend taking and what those risks say about Clare and her intrusion into Reenie’s life.
There’s a high-mindedness here that elevates a movie that on closer inspection isn’t particularly daring or revelatory.
Thompson keeps Reenie’s middle class reserve and sense of place in our minds as she avoids confrontations with Clare over her behavior and her husband over Brian’s eagerness to leave the United States.
She may protest his reading accounts of a lynching to their little boys. But Brian is blunt about why such things happen and why he thinks they should leave.
“Because they hate us, son.”
The Oscar nominated Negga makes Clare cagey enough to keep the viewer in the dark about what’s really going on — guilt because she’s denying her race, some other “history” with Reenie or a danger-loving personality that could hint at other transgressions she might consider.
Camp makes his fictional author larger than life, but the film left me confused about his presence in Reenie’s Negro League (NAACPish) functions and true connection to this world.
Hall directs with a light hand, focusing on characters and performances, and that serves her leads well. But the film lacks much in the way of heat, drama and “danger.” The “life” this movie looks in on — Harlem in its most glorious epoch — feels pristine, preserved under glass, not “lived” by flash and blood characters.
Casting Skarsgård, best known for his villainous turn in “Big Little Lies,” seems a tad on the nose.
“Passing” almost passes muster by virtue of its two winning leads. If only Hall had given them fireworks to play and a world that feels more vibrant than a faded black and white photograph.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, some racial slurs and smoking
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård and Bill Camp.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Rebecca Hall, based on the novel by Nella Larsen. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:39