If you sat down unsure whether you were being taken to another time, the gauzy monochrome and 4:3 aspect ratio would go some way to alleviating any doubt. Rebecca Hall’s take on a key African-American novel shrugs off its modest budget to offer a convincingly transportive vision of Harlem in the 1920s. Marci Rodgers’s costumes capture the prohibition lines without resorting to catwalky inverted-commas. The piano-heavy score from Devonté Hynes leans ever-so-gently on the bridge between ragtime and less jaunty sounds to come.
There is, of course, no reason to set Passing at any other time. Nella Larsen’s book is hardly buried in ancient obscurity. But it is still worth pointing towards the calendar. Any contemporary study of a black woman “passing” for white would move out under very different winds. When largely sympathetic characters here twig that Clare (Ruth Negga), a Chicagoan now married to an unsuspecting white jerk (Alexander Skarsgård), has taken on a Caucasian identity, there is variously surprise, irritation, curiosity, but little sense of shock and nothing you would call outrage. That last emotion is left for the racists. Passing is no longer such an everyday business as it once was (which is not to suggest it doesn’t happen). Any film dealing with such a story in the 21st century would necessarily play at a higher temperature. Hall’s decision to cut a late, explosive use of the N-word in the journey from novel to screenplay – though another remains – confirms how the dynamics have altered.
Yet Passing has contemporary relevance beyond conversations about race. Both novel and film are canny in the way they bring the argument around to the facades we all wear in society. There is nothing we love more than blaming others for different versions of our own dishonesty.
Hall’s debut feature hangs around the relationship between two old pals who have grown apart. It opens with a spooky encounter that prepares the way for a film that is much at home with pregnant pauses and meaningful blanks. Irene (Tessa Thompson), wife of a Harlem doctor, meets Clare in the lobby of a grand hotel after a long period travelling on different paths. The settled middle-class lady holds herself as settled middle-class ladies do. Clare is more obviously attached to the youthful fashions of the era: bleached hair, whitened brows, the pout of an exited flapper. The truth emerges and Irene politely raises an eye.
Later, they come together in New York city and a degree of complementary longing is set in motion. Irene calmly occupies higher ground. How could she do otherwise when Clare’s husband, who also takes Irene for white, unashamedly declares – nearly boasts – that he hates black people? As Clare gets inveigled into her old friend’s work with the Negro Welfare League, she expresses a barely suppressed longing for the culture she left behind. But it is equally clear that Irene envies the energies that Clare, who travels the world, has opened up with her deceptions. Meanwhile, she lords it over her black servants in a large townhouse.
This is dangerous territory for a film-maker, but Hall, whose own grandfather “passed” for white, is admirably cautious in her drawing-out of the intertwined themes. She could not be better served by her actors. Thompson, always a strong, charismatic presence, gives us a woman forever stopping short of speaking unhappy truths lying just beneath the comfortable surface. Negga last secured an Oscar nomination for her steady, centred performance as a determined campaigner in Loving. She deserves (and may well get) her second for a turn that spins in another direction altogether: hedonistic, self-deceiving, always the centre of attention.
Passing is, in some ways, a slender story. But Hall's feel for the period and her gift for folding potent discourse into the attractive visuals kicks it up to the level of high art. This Netflix title is worth seeing on its initial big-screen release. That medium is not just for Dune.
On limited release from October 29th