Rebecca Hall’s assured, thoughtful debut film “Passing” is a story of two women: Irene (Tessa Thompson), a doctor’s wife in 1920s Harlem, and Clare (Ruth Negga), a friend from Irene’s past with whom she unexpectedly reconnects. Both are light-skinned Black women, but Clare has chosen to live as white, marrying a white man (Alexander Skarsgård) and keeping her background secret. Irene, serendipitously meeting up with Clare on a visit to Chicago, widens her eyes on hearing this. “Does he ….” she asks, referring to Clare’s husband, not needing to finish the question. No, he doesn’t know, Clare assures her; the unspoken postscript being that sometimes, you don’t see what you don’t want to see.
Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing” unfolds like artful melodrama, filmed in quiet black and white by cinematographer Edu Grau and accompanied by delicate piano music by Devonte Hynes that sounds beautifully faded. Its characters, living nearly a century ago, have remarkable conversations about race and identity — you watch startled, realizing you’ve never seen a period film with this kind of conversation before — much of which Hall has taken directly from Larsen’s book. (Hall has spoken of how the film was inspired by learning, as a young woman, that she had a Black grandfather who passed as white throughout his life; a friend later recommended Larsen’s book.)
Irene could pass for white but doesn’t want to; she does so briefly, in an early scene, but is haunted by what she hears from the mouth of Clare’s racist husband, who thinks he’s in a whites-only room. She fears for Clare, and is both fascinated and horrified by her. In a mostly unspoken but powerful subplot, Irene employs a darker-skinned Black maid (Ashley Ware Jenkins); their relationship is fraught with uncomfortable nuance.
The story — ultimately a tragedy, as all melodramas are — plays out in two remarkable performances. Thompson, in the early scenes, wears a hat that shields her eyes from the camera; you sense Irene is grateful for a barrier between her often-unhappy self and a world that doesn’t welcome her as she is. Behind its brim, Thompson’s quiet face is a novel in itself, endless stories told in her gaze. (If you know Thompson best for her delightful comedic work as a hard-drinking Valkryie in “Thor: Ragnarok,” this movie will be a revelation.) Negga’s flirtatious Clare uses her own beauty as a shield; her smile is both welcome sign and roadblock. But watch her haunted face in the final scene, where all joy has drained from that smile — it’s like a once-lovely house now neglected and empty.
“Passing” is a subtle film that will reward multiple viewings, celebrating the work of two masterful actors, and announcing the quiet arrival of a director to watch.