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Sundance Film Festival Review: ‘Passing’ Can’t Quite Get a Passing Grade

"Passing"

Rebecca Hall opting to make a black and white period piece about race relations isn’t necessarily what you’d expect for her directorial debut. And yet, knowing how she comes from a family where these issues are cogent actually makes Passing a relevant choice. Her determination to make sure her point gets across is admirable. Unfortunately, despite from wonderful performances and beautiful cinematography, this one still comes up short as a complete movie. It’s one of the higher profile titles at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, but quality wise, it’s middle of the pack. Sadly, this is one of the festival’s bigger letdowns, overall.

Passing has all the trappings of a prestige period piece, but it’s unfortunately narratively stilted. It’s a shame, too, since this could easily have been the Oscar player to emerge from Sundance this year. Instead, it’s a work that’s easier to admire than to enjoy. Hall does a lot of good things behind the camera, but she also hasn’t yet learned pacing, as this story drags. At the end of the day, the good doesn’t quite outweigh the flaws, leading to an inability to recommend something that clearly has incredibly pure intentions. Alas.

Set in New York City during the 1920s, Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), is an upper-class woman, just going about her day. It’s a hot summer afternoon, so she goes to cool off at the Drayton Hotel. There, while having tea, she spots a blonde woman from across the room. Moreover, the woman is paying close attention to her. Irene recognizes her as Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), a high school classmate. She wants to leave, but Clare corners her, eager to reacquaint. As teenagers, they both could pass for white, but only Clare opted to do so, something she has continued to do.

Observing how Clare moves through the world, Irene has complicated feelings. Obviously, she’s taken a different path. Watching how Clare interacts with her racist white husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), as opposed to her life with spouse Brian (André Holland), also brings up complex feelings. Is she wrong to be “passing” as white? Could Irene be missing out? Isn’t everyone “passing” in some way? These are interesting questions, though the film never really has answers to share.

The performances by Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson are impeccable, and go a long way towards selling what Hall is presenting. Negga and Thompson have strong chemistry with each other, added layer upon layer to what each scene between them contains. It’s not flashy work, but it’s the sort of performance that quality actresses deliver. Unforunately, the supporting cast isn’t on that level, as André Holland and Alexander Skarsgård are forgettable, while Bill Camp is wasted.

Making her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall shows some real visual flair. The black and white cinematography from Eduard Grau is luminous, while there are some top notch shots. Plus, Hall clearly knows how to direct a cast. Unfortunately, her script, adapting Nella Larsen‘s novel, falls flat. She clearly has a lot on her mind, but a deliberate presentation, alongside lax pacing, prevents it from fully coming across.

Passing is a slight misfire, but it gives ample reason to be curious what Rebecca Hall does next behind the camera. She has the chops, so with a little more solid of a story, she could really knock it out of the park. as it stands, this flick is one that will likely present to some as prestige-worthy, but honestly never stacks up. Sundance may overestimate it, but you shouldn’t.

SCORE: ★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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