Tessa Thompson's Passing is an unmissable Netflix movie

·3-min read
Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Passing, out now on Netflix, is one of those unmissable films. Hewing close to its source material, the 1929 novel by Nella Larson, Passing tells the story of two women Irene and Clare, both mixed-race childhood friends who reunite in middle-class adulthood in New York City.

The two become more and more intertwined in each other's lives, and though they have much in common there is one big difference: Irene (Tessa Thompson, Thor) identifies as African-American and is married to a black doctor Brian (André Holland, Moonlight) while Clare (Ruth Negga, Preacher) "passes" as white and is married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgard, Big Little Lies).

The tension that this creates between the two women is palpable, but not only because of the way it draws lines between them in terms of class and society but because of what still permeates that line: their shared childhood and something recognisable in the other; as Irene describes it, a thing that cannot be registered.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Passing is, in its own way, a Hitchcockian psychodrama - and that's not just down to the black and white and the score, but the simmering tension in the double-entendres of each line. Clare and Irene are reluctant mirror images of each other, blown out of proportion by the funhouse in which they live.

Thompson and Negga are unparalleled. While Thompson simmers below the surface, Negga's Clare is spilling out, her words far more barbed even in their sugary sweetness. Negga only slightly outshines Thompson, but this is likely down to the fact that Clare is the character whose conflict drives the main story — Irene is reacting.

Behind the camera, Rebecca Hall directs with a light touch, allowing her actors to fill up the screen — whether it's their faces taking up space or the sweeping and stark visuals: Clare's dead body in the snow, the demure bow of Irene's head, face hidden behind a hat. Each move is deliberate and perfectly orchestrated and the film feels as if it was made with nothing left to chance.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

This has the strange side effect of making the audience feel as if they're really watching a play, where every single moment has been blocked to within an inch of its life. While sometimes alienating in film, with Passing it's the contrary. The taut specificity of each move only further cements the knife-edge on which both women are living their lives.

Even living 'truthfully' in her identity (and we use quotes because it is nigh on impossible for anyone to wholly live truthfully), Irene is plagued by jealousy and insecurity. Whether or not they are justified is always left up to the imagination, which is what makes it easy to sympathise with her.

It's hard to articulate quite how viscerally tense the energy is between the two women. Every moment is unrelenting and imbued with so much meaning that the movie demands a second watch. Thompson and Negga's faces tell far more than their words.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Holland does a solid turn as Brian, a husband who remains morally inscrutable, though not unlikeable. In stark contrast Skargaard plays John Bellew as so nonchalantly repugnant it's almost laughable, but wholly — and frighteningly — believable.

Passing is one of those rare films that is both full of unique and moving parts, and when those are put together into a final product none of their individual power is lost. This is a testament to Hall's ability to tease drama out of the smallest moments, stolen glances, and trembling hands.

And, of course, to its leading women without whom this story could feel like stock characters moving across a playing board on a prescribed plot — less Greek tragedy and more paint by numbers. It isn't luck, but rather the immense talent of everyone involved that has made Passing into the harrowing, personal, and infinitely watchable film that it is.

Passing is out now on Netflix

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