' ' Cinema Romantico: 291 Words On...Passing

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

291 Words On...Passing

In adapting Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel exploring race in 1920s Harlem, director Rebecca Hall takes the same tack as Maggie Gyllenhaal in adapting the novel “The Lost Daughter” in so much as she eschews voiceover to express the interior thoughts of protagonist Irene (Tessa Thompson) entirely through camera placement and editing. Hall favors close-ups and point-of-view shots of Irene, whose life is turned upside down when she reencounters an old friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), “passing” as white and married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgård, casual, terrifying). Their introduction sets the tone, alternating between straight-on shots of both characters that in Negga’s unwavering gaze and Thompson’s expressive fumbling is just about the purest evocation of someone seeing straight through you that I’ve ever seen and foreshadowing a relationship in which Clare, coming to Harlem on the regular and indulging her true racial identity, throws Irene off balance. Because if Irene’s husband (Andre Holland) wants to be up front with their sons about racism in America, she wants to protect their innocence for as long as she can, a nonacceptance “Passing’s” dreamy black and white suggests, that she is sleepwalking rather than facing up. Clare changes all that. And though Negga gives Clare considerable interior life, her character also becomes a reflection of Irene, evoked in Irene catching her own shaken visage in mirrors and evoking the DuBois idea of double consciousness, which “Passing” proceeds to play out almost in the manner of a thriller without really being a thriller at all. As such, the climatic sequence evokes the conclusion of the 2013 indie “Coherence” in so much as it essentially brings Irene face to face with herself, seeing herself through the eyes of someone she doesn’t even seem to know.

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