Greetings again from the darkness. “We’re all passing for something or other.” Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) speaks the line that cuts to the quick of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, adapted here by first time writer-director Rebecca Hall. We are familiar with Ms. Hall’s many film projects as an actor, and her debut as a director shows immense promise. Ms. Larsen’s novel was inspired by her own life as a mixed-race woman.
It’s Irene whom we first see as ‘passing’ as white as she visits a retail store and takes tea at a fancy restaurant that most assuredly would not serve her if her light complexion and drawn-down hat were not hiding her true self. Cinematographer Eduard Grau has the camera track Irene’s darting eyes that are trained to notice potential trouble. Her gaze stops on a woman seated alone. There is a familiarity between the two and soon, Clare (Ruth Negga) has joined her long-ago childhood friend, Irene, at her table. While Irene “passes” when it’s necessary, she clearly identifies and lives as an African-American – married to Harlem doctor Brian (Andre Holland). Clare, on the other hand, is living a lie. She has permanently “passed” as a white woman, marrying John (Alexander Skarsgard).
The film’s best scene occurs when Clare takes Irene home and introduces her to husband John. His vile, racist nature immediately shows, creating a tense moment filled with excruciating and subtle exchanges of knowing glances between Clare and Irene. It’s a dangerous moment and we aren’t sure where it’s headed. What is clear is that a childhood bond may exist between the two ladies, but there is now a void that can never be filled. But what happens is that Clare finagles her way into the lives of Irene and Brian (and their kids). What we see is that Clare finds the ‘honest’ life quite enticing. Allowing herself to be who she is … dropping the façade … energizes her. Racial identity and sexuality are at stake here, and so are class and culture.
Bill Camp plays a pompous writer named Hugh who always seems to be hanging around the same parties and events as Irene. One of the best lines of the film occurs after Bill asks someone why they are hanging around. The answer is brief and insightful, and cuts to the quick. It’s a strong debut film from director Hall. It has a dreamlike look and excellent performances from the two leading ladies. The grey area in life is teased, and we do wish the dive had been a bit deeper on Irene and Clare, but that ending is one that will stun you – even if you’re expecting it.
Streaming on Netflix