In Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing, set in the late 1920s (and based on the 1929 novella by Nella Larsen), there is a line between the joy that comes with being known and recognised and the dangers of being revealed. The two women at the centre of the story, Tessa Thompson’s Irene and Ruth Negga’s Clare, walk that line precariously, knowing what slipping would signify. It is befitting that the film ends in an ambiguous fall, one that may be an accident, may be a desperate push to cover up something that will escalate into revelation sooner or later.
Passing is shot in academy-ratio and black and white, which has the effect of stripping away all distraction from the interactions on screen – in a way, it is the opposite of Todd Haynes’ opulent Carol (which, with its chance encounter and simmering desire, occasionally parallels this story). Everything that happens is captured in Thompson’s and Negga’s facial expressions and where their gazes fall. Passing begins with a reunion: on a simmering hot summer day (the seasons of the year later captured elegantly through the progress of a tree in front of her brownstone), Irene seeks relief in a hotel restaurant, perhaps unwittingly passing as white (later she will say, for the first time in her life) to the staff. She is seated, and then sees and recognises Clare, a woman from a shared past, who has fallen out of her life and seems considerably more happy to see her than the other way around. In this first conversation, Clare reveals that she has been passing as white much longer and eloquently than Irene – in fact, she has built an entire life on it, marrying a man who, once Irene meets him in their hotel room, turns out to be a vile racist, spewing racial epitaphs with no clue that his wife and daughter are black. It’s a kind of context blindness that extends to Irene, who ironically asks him if he has ever met a black person, to which he replies no – because Irene is where she is, in his hotel room, with his wife, she cannot be black. It appears that the same mechanism has kept Clare safe for as long as it has, but it has also meant that Clare has traded the freedom of being seen, of being herself, with the material luxuries of being seen as white.
Seeing Irene stirs desire for Clare, who wants to return to a place where she can be free again, and perhaps a place culturally and intellectually richer than the one she has built for herself with her racist husband. Eager to get back into Irene’s life, she writes countless letters, to which Irene does not respond – because, as becomes clearer and clearer, their chance encounter has also revealed that Irene has given up a kind of freedom, a kind of identity, when she married her husband. This does not need to be made explicit in the text because it simmers under the surface throughout, in every stolen glance, in the emotional turmoil that Clare’s proximity brings into Irene’s life. The closest to a clear acknowledgement comes later, when Clare first fully enters Irene’s world, when she accompanies her and her husband to a dance for the Negro Welfare League Irene volunteers for, and appears to fit in better with the sheer joy found there than Irene herself: a white writer and friend to Irene, watching his own wife as a gleeful tourist in this world, remarks at Clare passing as white, and Irene responds with a laconic “We’re all of us passing for something or other”. It is the closest she comes to acknowledging the truth that she has been passing as straight, and Clare’s return has made it clear to her at what cost.
If Passing has a weakness, it’s how little of Clare’s life outside of her newfound connection to Irene’s we see: when Clare leaves, we do not follow her, not to her life with her husband, not to Europe when she travels. She leaves and enters, with much more mobility than is afforded to Irene, who has chosen one kind of life, but she also remains a mystery throughout. But then, maybe this befits how little Irene knows about her, how she cannot be sure about Clare's feelings. She appears aware of Irene’s gazes, and of some shared history that is only alluded to, but she is also a chameleon, perfectly adaptable to whatever situation she finds herself in, with more ease at making connections than Irene is. But her interiority remains hidden from the viewer. Irene, on the other hand, is all interiority: she spends a good part of the film, and her life, napping on a chair, waiting for something to happen, equally bored without and horrified at change. It is interesting that Clare has chosen to pass, and married a white man, but it is Irene’s life that looks like that of an upper-class white woman: She has a maid who cooks for her and looks after the children, and like a true Virginia Woolf, to her that maid is irreplaceable, but at the same time insufferable, because it means she is constantly surveilled and watched. Clare, more adapt at transgressing differences of class, makes an easy connection to Felise, talking about life, while Irene’s relationship to her can best be described as passive-aggressive and uneasy. In that awkwardness, it becomes obvious that the titular Passing is so much more about Irene than it is about the more elusive Clare. Clare is forever moving, and she is thinking about leaving her husband and returning to this life which seems so much more joyful and free. Irene, on the other hand, seems static and incapable of change, from her refusal to move her family (her husband eager to see his sons grow up in a safer place, horrified by the racist atrocities in the South), to the way she mostly remains sitting or standing at parties. Fitting, then, that the finale of the film finds Clare in motion, and Irene motionless – Clare’s husband tracks her down to a party, and, robbed of his blinders, finally realises that he has been played, charges at her, threatening – but then, perhaps Irene moves her arm, or maybe she simply watches, as Clare tumbles through the window, because it returns her life to what it was before they reconnected.
2021, directed by Rebecca Hall, starring Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Alexander Skarsgård.