Premise: Reenie (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) were friends as children in Harlem, but they haven’t seen each other for many years when they run into each other the 1920s. Reenie is now a well-off housewife to a successful doctor (Andre Holland), still living in Harlem, with two sons and doing volunteer work for black charities. Clare lives in Chicago, also a wife of a successful businessman, but she has more or less abandoned her past in order to live a life most black women would never experience. Their reunion leads to a cautious friendship, whose life choices are questioned by the other in small jabs and knowing looks. Were the sacrifices each woman made worth the life that each are now living?
My Take: This is British actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial and screenplay debut, based on the 1929 novel by Harlem Renaissance writer, Nellie Larsen. It is obviously a very personal project for Hall, who is of mixed heritage, and it is an assured debut. “Passing” is a small story about very big issues, and to create this world, Hall has opted to shoot it in black & white and in 4:3 ratio. She collaborates well with cinematographer Eduard Grau, even if some striking images seem more manufactured than occurring naturally out of the course of the story. The movie also seems to be heading towards a confrontation, but it opts for a more cinematic resolution. I felt cheated by this, but maybe the book (which I haven’t read) leaves the friends’ motives equally unverbalized. Still, for a movie set in 1920s, its relevance in current times will not be lost on the audience.
VIP: Tessa Thompson. While Ruth Negga is fine as Clare (she seems to be channeling Maggie the Cat in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), it is Thompson who shines here. Although mostly known as Chris Hemsworth’s sidekick (in “Thor: Ragnorok” and “Men in Black: International), she has quietly been doing fine work in smaller movies like “Little Woods.” But here, Thompson takes it to the next level. She does so much with her quiet stares and her unexpected outbursts (there’s a moment in Clare’s hotel room when Reenie’s laugh is both a relief and an indictment). Tessa Thompson is so good at just being still.
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