It starts in sweltering heat; it ends in freezing weather. And in between, as the temperature gradually drops, Rebecca Hall’s “Passing,” based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, calmly brings the diffuse racial landscape of prohibition-era New York City into crystalline, gorgeously shot focus. This radically intimate exploration of the desperately fraught concept of “passing” — being Black but pretending to be white — ought to be too ambitious for a first-time filmmaker, but Hall’s touch is unerring, deceptively delicate, quiet and immaculate, like that final fall of snow.
On a hot summer day, Irene (Tessa Thompson) is downtown on an errand. Her visible discomfort, the way she tries to retract into herself, to hide behind the gauzy brim of a hat that cuts her eyeline in two, is a silent evocation of how uncomfortable she is under the gazes of the white people around her. This time, anyway, she is mostly projecting: No one takes much notice, nothing too alarming happens. But then suddenly, stepping into the full beam of all that projection and sometimes catching the light, there’s Clare (Ruth Negga), a childhood friend visiting from Chicago, now unrecognizably glamorous, with a perfect swoop of blonde hair and arched, lightened brows framing silent-movie-It-Girl eyes.
The meeting between the two is a superbly drawn encounter. Irene’s scrambling panic when this white-lady stranger stares her down, then sets off toward her across a hotel tea room, and how it dissolves from her body into relief and then curiosity when she finally registers her old friend, is a brilliant sampler of Thompson’s extraordinarily embodied performance. And Negga, brittle and dazzling, commands attention exactly the way Clare does in every room she walks into; already in that first, insolent stare of hers there is a touchpaper lit on a long fuse toward tragedy.
Clare has been passing as white for years, chiefly deluding John (Alexander Skarsgard), her loathsomely racist, but rich white husband and the father of her child, whom John believes to be wholly white. But meeting Irene again kindles in Clare a desire to reconnect with the old self she’s been hiding so long. Behind John’s back, she begins to ingratiate herself into her friend’s vastly different life: the handsome Harlem brownstone Irene shares with her tired-eyed, sardonic doctor husband, Brian (Andre Holland), and their two sons, and her work for the community’s Negro Welfare League, alongside well-respected (white) patron and writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp). If Irene is attracted to Clare’s vivacity (and there is definite, if subtle, gay desire between them), Clare is envious of Irene’s stability. No matter that both impressions are false. The things you jettison on the way to the life you think you want are the things you miss most when you get there.
This is a somber story, but it’s filled with unusual light, from the spare, gentle, jazz-piano trills of Devonté Hynes’ score to the glowy, glorious black-and white photography from DP Edu Grau (“A Single Man”). Sometimes Grau’s compositions are strikingly strange: Clare, stretching against the sunlight, or an embrace framed so the image is mostly tree branches and sky. But more often, the lovely illuminated monochrome is brought to bear on ordinary things, wispy domestic details like a crack in a bedroom ceiling or a stirring curtain. The camera seems trained, with graceful, unconscious bias, on the things a woman of that period might have noticed. It’s as though Hall’s distinctly feminine attention propels the imagery toward the swinging hemlines and crooked stocking seams of chattering matrons, or the crease on the back collar of Irene’s flowing morning peignoir (a garment that, like all of Marci Rodgers’s costuming, manages to be both beautiful for us to look at, and real for the character to wear).
In terms of overt drama, “Passing” is perhaps a slender story, but it could only feel undernourished if you don’t share Hall’s minute fascination with the tides of envy and longing that flow between these women, and if you somehow are not beguiled by their richly imagined interior lives — especially Irene’s. Perhaps surprisingly given that she is ostensibly in the less perilous position, the film is really Irene’s story, with Clare just the newest and, for a time, brightest star in her personal firmament.
This is a choice made explicit at times in Jacob Ribikoff’s expressive sound design, which sometimes makes Irene’s voice a nervous boom in her own ears while all else is dampened and dulcet. It’s like we are inside her head: a radical and difficult place to be. Never does Hall’s evident empathy or Thompson’s deep immersion let Irene entirely off the hook: This fascinatingly flawed woman’s motivations are as often questionable as admirable — her offhandedly classist treatment of her housekeeper; her sly complicity in Wentworth’s cultural tourism; the way she pushes her own discontentments onto her husband and pretends they’re his. “You are a lot less content with what you’ve got when she is not here,” she hisses at Brian, implying a jealousy that really only she feels.
If you are attuned to this unusually elusive wavelength, there is plenty of dramatic tension here, but it’s the tension of inevitability, of arcs of deception that, however long, tend toward exposure in the end. And who is to blame? Perhaps as much as anything, “Passing” is about victimhood, and the twisted way we sometimes claim to be the injured party to avoid the unsavory truth, that some hurt is self-inflicted, the unavoidable consequence of choices made, deliberately or thoughtlessly, a long time back. At their very first meeting, Clare explains her reasons for passing with flippant, worldly, Zelda Fitzgerald ease: She wants the money and social status she believes she can’t attain otherwise. “All things considered, it’s worth the price,” she declares. But Hall’s beautiful, sharp and intelligent film knows that’s what you say before the debt has come fully due.