Sundance 2021: Passing

This film is based on the electrifying 1920s novel by Nella Larsen depicting two former friends who run into each other randomly in New York City. Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) were friends in high school but haven’t seen each other since. Both women are biracial; Irene lives in Harlem with her husband and sons while Clare lives in Chicago with her own husband and child. The major difference being that while Irene lives authentically, Clare is passing for white. Even Clare’s husband John (Alexander Skarsgard) believes her to be white. In fact, needs her to be white, since, as he tells us, the only person who hates Black people more than he does is Clare herself. He’s even given her a “cute” racially-charged nickname that he loves to boast about. Clare lives deep, deep under cover. Irene sees the danger in the situation and resolves to stay away from her, unwilling to keep denying her own race to hide Clare’s.

However, when Clare and John move to New York City themselves, the two women reignite their friendship, despite Irene’s reluctance. Clare has been desperate for the unique comfort of being among her own people, but Irene is terrified of John, and of what might happen should he find out. But a mutual obsession grows the more time Clare spends in Harlem; they seem almost unable to untangle from each other even as their friendship threatens their carefully curated Truths.

Passing isn’t just about race. It takes on gender, sexuality, and importantly, class. Clare’s constructed identity revolves around her passing as white, but Irene’s identity is more wrapped up in her status. As the wife as a doctor, she strictly maintains her middle class boundaries, going as far as to isolate herself in order not to be mistaken for someone of a lower class, while Clare is much more comfortable straddling the lines and treating class as more fluid. Writer-director Rebecca Hall paints a beautiful portrait in which these two women exist, and develop, and she allows Negga and Thompson the space to explore who their characters are and why. Through lenses of happiness, jealousy, security, fear, and desire, we come to know these women and what guides them in their choices.

This is a fertile character study where psychology and motivation are layered in richness and depth. With its deliciously ambiguous ending, Rebecca Hall honours the masterful source material while also creating something impactful of her own.

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