Like its enigmatic leads, “Passing” wastes no time wading into thorny territory. Employing a theatrical economy of space, the film’s opening scene tumbles seamlessly into in one of its most arresting moments, one that leaves a lasting impression. After running into an old school friend Clare (Ruth Negga) while out shopping, Irene (Tessa Thompson) reluctantly visits the hotel room Clare shares with her unnervingly white husband John (Alexander Skarsgård). Though viewers may guess at the film’s premise from its plumb title (which is both ambiguous and direct), we observe rapt as Irene politely pieces together the details of Clare’s unusual lifestyle.
When John reveals the racist origins of his nickname for his blonde wife (whom he thinks is white), without the faintest hint of shame, Irene cannot stop herself from bursting out in a fit of nervous laughter. The spell goes on slightly too long for comfort, and the tension of the moment recedes only briefly before rebuilding with each cackling crescendo. Will her outburst raise flags, or further her own cover? Irene is at once playful and panicked, sing-songy and full-throated. Not since her brash debut in “Creed” has Thompson been this deliciously calibrated.
Shot on black and white film in an ambitious 4:3 aspect ratio, which produces a suffocating effect of walls closing in, “Passing” is an impressive directorial debut for Rebecca Hall. Hardly a newcomer herself, Hall’s own performative background comes through in the achievements of her cast: “Passing” is undoubtedly an actor’s film, one that could garner Oscar nominations for both performers.
While Netlix plans to submit Negga for Best Supporting Actress, Thompson is gunning for the lead category of Best Actress, which provides a terrific opportunity to scrutinize her extraordinary talents in a movie fully attuned to her skill. In an interview with IndieWire, Thompson said she found it challenging to play “someone that does not show the fullness of their experience. You have to show enough that the audience can understand, maybe they don’t understand entirely what’s happening. The truth is, I don’t think that Irene does, she doesn’t have access to herself.”
Though Clare is more outwardly expressive, Irene is restrained. She eyes Clare with a curious fascination, she pities her entrapment in the world of whiteness but can’t help admiring her joie de vivre. Clare is intoxicating, to both Irene and her husband Brian (André Holland). In some ways, Irene is the more challenging role, as she keeps everything so close to the vest.
As with the Nella Larsen novella on which the film is based, many of the exchanges in “Passing” are coded under pleasant veneer of heightened language and a classical black and white look. Thompson likens “Passing” to John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence,” another movie about an alienated woman whose instability becomes a narrative device. “It lives in that space where this woman is entirely unraveling and you don’t necessarily know that. I think the audience might know that before she does,” she said. “It felt almost Hitchcockian. She’s inside of a real suspense thriller, but it’s really the landscape of her own mind.”
The Hitchcock parallels are especially apt when considering films like “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train,” which some have interpreted as homoerotic. Like the novella, “Passing” leaves much about the dynamic between the characters for interpretation.
“When I read the novella the first time, it felt like there was a lot of undertones that were very apparent to me,” said Thompson. “There’s some people that read it as a queer piece of fiction and some people that don’t see that at all. I read it that way. For me, I think one of the ways in which Irene might be passing is she’s passing for straight. But I also think [Larsen] is saying that all of those binaries are silly constructions and none of us fit too squarely in any of them. That when we are actually allowed the fullness of our self and authenticity, that we are always bound to spill out the sides of whatever boxes we try or people try to put us in.”
There are other queer readings in the novella and the film as well. Irene and Brian’s writer friend Hugh, played by an impish Bill Camp, observes his wife’s sexual exploits with gleeful envy. The character is considered a stand-in for Carl Van Vechten, the writer and patron of the Harlem Renaissance who was openly queer in his lifetime.
“Oh, Hugh was definitely gay. I can say that’s not up for interpretation, he was gay. Hugh is queer,” Thompson said. Though less apparent in the film, some interpretations of the novella have even read Irene’s husband Brian as queer, citing his preoccupation with moving to Brazil, which at the time was known as a queer destination.
Though it seems clear that Thompson played Irene as queer, she was energized by the uncertainty of it. “There is a kind of ambiguity that I don’t think we are often allowed, specifically as female protagonists, and then particularly Black female protagonists. I’m not sure of that were allowed the privilege of ambiguity all that often,” she said. “I think so often, we play characters that are functional in a narrative. They have a job to do and so they can’t necessarily be a thing that’s hard to pin down because they serve a purpose inside of the narrative at large.”
Her observations come from the scripts she gets sent: Roles like therapists, detectives, or CIA agents, which are in service to other people, or functional to the larger narrative.
“Not often do you get to see portraits that are just exploratory, that are about the interpersonal and also where you don’t always understand what the character adds up to,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve been given that freedom. Certainly, I think that’s definitely true if you talk about the intersections of sexuality. I think the same is true for queer characters on screen.”
“Passing” is currently playing in theaters before heading to Netflix on November 10.