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Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield in "Passing." Photo courtesy of IMDb.

REVIEW: 'Passing' explores the delicate and the dangerous

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut “Passing” deftly explores the ways in which we craft beauty out of race, class, gender expectations and the innermost desires that bubble beneath the surface within us all.

Released on Netflix on Oct. 27, “Passing” is based on a Nella Larson novel of the same name that follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), two Black women in 1920s New York who are able to “pass” as white. Irene lives her life as a Black woman, while Clare is married with a child to a white, virulent racist who is unaware of her true heritage.

Shifting gears after a prolific 30-year acting career, Hall chose to adapt “Passing” because her own maternal grandfather, Norman Ewing, was a biracial man who also spent his life “passing” as white. Her mother spent much of her life without any clear answer on their own ancestry, which Ewing seemed to hide even from his child. Now, Hall’s film adaptation has already made a significant impact on numerous others since its release three months ago and is being predicted as an Oscar contender.

In the movie, though Irene faces clear, obvious dangers as a Black woman in the 1920s, she is able to find security in her family unit and comfortable class status. Clare, on the other hand, exudes peril as she attempts to float above binaries of race and class in a society which enforces them strictly.

Each woman longs for what the other has. Clare basks in the comfort and security afforded to her in the little moments when she can be absorbed into Irene’s life. She gains the admiration of Irene’s children, charms Irene’s husband and social circle, and speaks in friendly terms with Irene’s maid, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins).

Irene, on the other hand, is dazzled and bewildered by Clare’s beauty. The cause of this infatuation seems to be multi-faceted: Irene is fueled by jealousy by possible repressed romantic attraction and, perhaps most of all, a desire to understand how Clare finds it in her to evade the standards which Irene is bound to.

The two women’s increasing infatuation with each other’s lives is portrayed with stunning nuance by Thompson and Negga. Negga channels Daisy Buchanan, leaning into a glamorous and mutable sort of beauty which slips through your hands before you can ever reach it. Thompson’s portrayal of repression gives palpable tension to every scene. Together, the two chafe in perfect disharmony. The message is clear: these two aesthetic ideals cannot coexist. 

The camera work makes itself integral to the story. The framing is tight and meticulous, and the action of the scene is often obscured from the viewer. Each woman is adhering to her own perfectly crafted aesthetic ideal, and the tense, teetering balance of both Clare and Irene’s picturesque lives is perfectly reflected through the language of the camera.

Nearly every element of the film, in fact, revels in its own obscurity. The screenplay rejects any kind of definitive answer or obvious moral conclusion. Each interaction is jam-packed with numerous thematic elements which are left squarely in the hands of the viewer to come to any decisions on.

It’s the kind of movie that leaves an unscratchable itch, leaving you with burning questions about beauty or morality that haven't even come close to being answered in the near-century since the initial publication of the novel. 

Zara Roy is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle

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