‘Passing’ Review: An Emotionally Distant but Admirable Effort 

Daniel Rester reviews the Netflix drama 'Passing,' written and directed by Rebecca Hall and starring Tessa Thompson.
User Rating: 6.5

‘Passing’ Review: An Emotionally Distant but Admirable Effort 

By Daniel Rester

Rebecca Hall, an amazing actress, makes her directorial debut with Passing. She also co-produced the Netflix film and wrote the screenplay, which is based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen. Obviously Hall put a lot of passion into the project, and she shows some skill behind the camera. I think she could have injected a bit more energy and emotion into the film’s presentation though as the characters can be hard to connect to at times and the pacing can drag. 

The title of the film refers to someone “passing” as another race, in this case African Americans who have light enough skin to pass as white people. It’s an interesting concept and Hall uses it to present a fresh angle for looking at racism. She does touch on other aspects like lynching and black adolescence, but for the most part she keeps her lens on the subject of passing. 

Tessa Thompson plays Irene Redfield in the film. She lives at home in Harlem with her husband and two boys, all of them black. One day she comes across childhood friend Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), a black woman passing as a white woman while being married to a racist white man. The two become close again as Clare misses being around the culture in Harlem. Irene becomes uncomfortable though as Clare gets close to Irene’s husband, Brian (Andre Holland). 

Hall shows confidence as a director and is aided by a fine cast and artistic team in getting her vision across. Thompson and Holland make for a believable couple, and the scenes where they argue about how to raise their kids find the director and the actors at their best with the material. Negga is terrific throughout as Clare, giving the character charm and poison without ever making her too showy. 

Passing is handsomely shot by Eduard Grau, with boxed-in frames and black and white photography chosen by he and Hall. Soft focus is often displayed to match Hall’s delicate staging and unhurried pacing. Devonte Hyne’s unusual piano score blends well with the period atmosphere. All of this gives the film a feeling similar to a foggy dream. 

Though I admire Hall’s focus and subtlety as a storyteller, I hardly ever connected to her characters emotionally. We learn a bit about Clare and Irene, and yet they always feel at a distance. The climax of the film also feels inevitable from indications early on, so getting to it can feel flat at times during the middle section. Passing tells its story well, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bore me at times. 

Of the many race-related films of the past few years, Passing is a fine but unremarkable entry. It’s handled maturely by Hall and her cast and crew, thankfully never feeling like one of those cloying, Hollywood-ized takes on race relations. I just wish it had a bit more life to it as it is a black and white motion picture, not a black and white still photograph. 

My Grade: 6.5/10 (letter grade equivalent: B-)

Running Time: 1h 38min

6.5
Fair
Written by
Daniel Rester is a writer for the We Live Film portion of We Live Entertainment. He is a Southern Oregon University alumnus and has a Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in Communication (Film, Television, and Convergent Media) and Emerging Media and Digital Arts. He has been involved with writing and directing short films for years. Rester also won 2nd place in the Feature Screenplay Competition in the 2015 Oregon Film Awards for his screenplay "Emma Was Here," which is currently in post-production and will be Rester's feature directorial debut.

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