By Andrea Thompson
The moment Tessa Thompson makes her entrance in all her elegant glory, “Passing” is making a promise, that of a passionate, yet tender 1920s period piece to come. It’s in the camera’s loving caress, the slow way Thompson’s face is revealed, an introduction which rivals Kate Winslet’s first impression in a fashion (pun intended) that became both starmaking and iconic in “Titanic.” And both feature a hat so perfect it seems too good to be true. It’s remarkable in many ways, mainly because of what “Passing” is able to achieve without James Cameron’s vivid use of color. No, Rebecca Hall fully and boldly commits to a dreamy black and white aesthetic in her directorial debut, which has all the quiet forcefulness of a storm about to break.
The tempest consists of two equally repressed women, Irene (Tessa Thompson), and Clare (Ruth Negga), who meet by chance in a hotel and quickly become increasingly fascinated with each other’s lives. Both women could successfully pass for white, and while Irene has remained a part of the Black community and married a much darker skinned, successful doctor (André Holland) and enjoys a comfortable middle class life, the bubbly, charismatic Clare has kept her Blackness hidden and found great wealth and privilege with a white husband (Alexander Skarsgård). In each other, both see a path they might have chosen. Clare longs for freedom and a community where she can be completely herself, while Irene yearns for the safety and security she often experiences by mistake and attempts to will into existence, for herself and her children.
As Clare quickly invites herself into Irene’s life, who finds herself more and more drawn to her, feelings neither can bring themselves to acknowledge, let alone speak of, bloom, or rather, loom more and more between them. Both find in the other a welcome escape, with Clare able to embrace her identity, albeit secretly, while Irene finds relief from her respectably stifled middle class life, which she is determined to not only maintain, but uphold, in all its illusions. She keeps a distance between herself and her much darker-skinned maid Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins), and resists even mentioning lynching or anything negatively associated with race to her two young sons.
“Passing” too cannot bear to look too far into the abyss that is race in America, which Larsen’s book stared full in the face. True, Skarsgård may call his beautiful, intelligent wife “Nig” as a nickname due to her skin darkening throughout their marriage, but for some reason, it can’t follow through on all the implications. He is somewhat racist rather than openly, savagely racist, an omission that fails to cut as deep when he reveals himself for what he is in front of women he has no clue are Black, for all his so-called confidence and knowledge. At least the film commits fully to the book’s main truth, that in a system which so ruthlessly champions whiteness, that whiteness will reassert order by any means necessary.