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“Passing” Elegantly Examines Friendship and Race in 1920’s New York (Review)

Shortly after premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the directorial debut of actor Rebecca Hall (“The Night House”) was acquired for release by Netflix in a worldwide deal.

Based on the groundbreaking 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, “Passing” tells the story of two childhood friends who run into each other as adults, intersecting with each other again at very different places in their lives.

Tessa Thompson stars as Irene, a woman living in Harlem with her husband Brian (André Holland) and their two children. With Brian working as a doctor, they live comfortably enough for Irene to spend her time charitably.

While stopping for a drink on a blisteringly hot summer day, she runs into Clare (Ruth Negga) in a hotel bar. The two women grew up together in Harlem, but now Clare is living in Chicago with her husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) and just visiting the city while he is on a work trip.

Both women have a mixed race heritage, but Clare has gone so far as to live her life while fully “passing,” or being perceived by others as white. In conversation, Irene discovers that not only is Clare hiding her identity, but knows that her husband is virulently racist. Irene’s skin is light enough to not draw his ire and he is unaware, at least initially, that his wife’s former best friend is Black, spouting off some horrific comments in the process.

Despite her misgivings, Irene falls back under Clare’s spell and the two become close again after the couple relocate to New York City from Chicago. It doesn’t take long for Clare to integrate herself back into Irene’s family and social circle, but she does so at great personal risk.

Creatively, the film is poetically presented in the old-school 1.33:1 Academy ratio and in black and white. In an interview with American Cinematographer, Hall said, “It just struck me that the best way to make a movie about colorism was to take all of the color out of it.” Director of Photography Eduard Grau (“The Way Back”) added vintage anamorphic lenses to his digital cameras in order to capture a softer and more period authentic image.

Even though it was not captured in 4K, the Netflix transfer is enhanced with Dolby Vision and that color grading provides deep, dark blacks with a myriad of grey levels that almost appear at times as very desaturated color.

The sound mix also swirls around in an intimate manner that reminded me of Robert Altman’s favorite techniques. There is a real focus on background noise and conversations and there is one beautiful shot on the streets of Harlem where we really can’t hear any noise aside from the leaves hypnotically blowing in the canopy of trees above. Devonte Hynes, who records as Blood Orange, also infuses the film with a breezy jazz piano score that fires on all cylinders.

Both lead performances are truly extraordinary. “Passing” is constructed so beautifully and personally that it’s hard to believe that this is Hall’s first time in the director’s chair.

Passing” is now playing in select theaters and will be streaming on Netflix beginning Wednesday, November 10.