Home Film ‘Passing’ Review – A Sincere but Jumbled Exploration of Identity | Sundance 2021

‘Passing’ Review – A Sincere but Jumbled Exploration of Identity | Sundance 2021

by Beatrine Shahzad
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in the Sundance 2021 film Passing.

Identity is often something incredibly complicated. It’s a combination of external perceptions and internal understandings and both heads of the coin have pros and cons. Internal understandings can bring comfort, to live as an authentic self, but if it conflicts with the accepted external perception with how a person should be, then it’s dangerous. This relationship between freedom, safety, and happiness, and how it is intrinsically tied to identity, is what Passing, the latest from director Rebecca Hall, attempts to tackle.

Passing starts with a reconnection between two old friends, Irene and Clare, both light skinned Black women who come across each other in New York during the 1920s. It’s revealed that while Irene had married a Black doctor and lives in Harlem, Clare chose to pass as a white woman and married a white man who has no idea of her true heritage. While Clare must come to terms with her dissatisfaction with life, Irene must grapple with the dangers of being Black in America and raising a family with those struggles. The film circles Irene as she comes to terms with Clare re-entering her life and the reflections she arouses. 

The classic atmosphere is woven into the fabric of the film tightly, effectively transporting the audience to a different era. Passing is presented in black-and-white, something that pairs wonderfully with the cinematography. Black and white often represents an either-or dynamic, but there are shades of gray, just as there are people who can either be assumed as Black or white depending on the situation. The cinematography plays with this idea, lighting the two main characters as either darker or paler between different moments. This is also used to explore ethics, ideas of moral and immoral, as well as the space between them. Clare and Irene are meant to foil these ideas and highlight not only the failings in the other, but also their own individual beliefs and strengths.

Tessa Thompson’s Irene and Ruth Negga’s Clare are very strong performances, acting as the driving heart of the film. Clare is a large personality that Negga embodies with a charming grace and grand presence. Thompson’s Irene on the other hand is a quieter character, more realistic and reserved. She comments that everyone is “passing” as something else in one way or another, and while Clare wears her disguise loudly and with such confidence that no one begins to doubt her, Irene instead keeps her secrets close to her heart and struggles to keep them contained. Thompson and Negga work together wonderfully and their chemistry is just as integrally palpable as their individual performances.

The main faults with this movie is how it relates to the source material. It’s based on the novel Passing by Nella Larson. Since writing is the only tool used to build a story in novels, the narrative is often very thorough. It is somewhat easier to tie thematic elements together when they all share the same medium and the internal monologues of the characters or specific descriptions can give the book life and meaning. Everything is very intentional and tight. This film felt like watching a book. Each scene felt complete in itself, but lacked a larger unifying force. Passing deals with a lot of components and ideas and to string them together in a meaningful way while the film was unfolding, the film needed to be more focused. Instead, pieces of it get lost and mangled within themselves and it’s hard to decipher what to make of it. For Passing to truly be great, it had to better utilize film as a medium to have the same narrative tightness of a novel. Also because of this weakness, the film can feel like it’s dragging at times as engagement is lost. The concepts the film explores are captivating, but it’s a shame that it’s difficult to really focus on a single one since they become lost in the jumble of others.

While Passing leads with two strong performances and delves into a fascinating introspection on identity and race, there is something missing that ties the entire film together. This results in a moderate viewing experience when it was so close to being excellent. Even when the event comes that’s meant to tie everything together, it feels hollow, like it wasn’t properly built up to, and discouragingly incomplete. 

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Passing premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. 

Check out more of our festival coverage here!

Follow writer Beatrine Shahzad on Twitter: @beyabean

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