Netflix’s Passing is a Monochromatic Beautiful Obsession

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Netflix)

The Streaming Movie Review: Netflix’s Passing

By Ross

Passing‘, the act, is a complicated quality, wrapped up in a heavy layer of shame and discomfort known to many who sit outside the socially acceptable norms of their time, like me, a gay man growing up in the 70s, 80s, and beyond. My experience with hiding isn’t exactly the same thing as presented within Rebecca Hall’s masterful creation, especially due to my Canadian liberal upbringing, but I know all too well the tension that can overtake the body when a person is put in a particular situation that makes one feel, even if it’s not actually the logical truth, that they must hide their true self for the sake of survival.

Filmed in black and white, a framework that seems to be the thing these days, the visual paints a picture etched with emotion and drama, coaxing our mind’s eye to fill in the negative spaces in a way we don’t always have to with full color or realism. With a surprising number in distribution, particularly the seemingly gorgeous black and white film, “Belfast” which I am desperate to see, I find myself embracing the medium with even more relish these days for all its art and abstractionism.

But unlike the powerful stark intensity created within Coen’s two-toned masterpiece, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, Hall (ATC’s Animal) unpacks a different kind of delicacy and tense intimacy inside her captivating directing debut, “Passing”. She masterfully creates something spectacular in her achingly deep adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, playing out the hypnotic tale like a medically-induced anxiety dream while unearthing layers upon layers of subdued grey tones of internalized shame and self-hatred.

Formulated in the uncomfortable tension that resides in the idea of “Passing”, the intense discomfort and haziness are far from the sharp landscape concocted by Coen and his “...Macbeth“, but something deeper, as if wrapped in the soft-focused awakening from an afternoon nap assisted by some medicinal tonic. Almost everyone in this intricate compilation is hiding or deceiving, shivering and scared underneath the brittle facade, with shame stitched intricately into the very fabrics of their uncomfortably fine identity. 

Hall, an accomplished actress well-known for her work in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “The Town“, shines forth the confident warm tones of historical memory, creating a creamy experience worthy of the race formulations unpacked within. Keeping her head down in an uncomfortably engaging first scene, our eyes are drawn to Irene, who tentatively purchases two toy trucks for, we guess, her sons that are waiting for her up in Harlem.

She’s obviously well off, dressed and holding herself together and upright, polite and careful while keeping her eyes down. Floating around Irene, intuitively portrayed by Tessa Thompson (“Annihilation“; 2ST’s Smart People), the air feels hot and stifling, inside and out, pushing the young mother into a cab to escape the intensity of the moment. Up she goes, at the suggestion of a friendly taxi driver, to a cool cafe in a hotel that I’m guessing isn’t a welcoming place for a person of color. She enters anyway, playing with the deception that money can sometimes give, as well as a well-placed hat and an expensive pair of gloves. 

She sits, careful not to draw attention, and even though there is no overt indication she is doing wrong, we sense the danger. It’s an instantaneous internalized moment of fear; a forced deception to be delivered with a nervous glance to the door. And when Irene catches the eye of a woman staring at her in that hotel restaurant where she knows she probably shouldn’t be sitting so comfortably within, the panic that takes over her body, especially when she watches the woman stand and begin to walk towards her. That tremor is as real and alarming as presented here. We feel her heart begin to race, and the adrenaline starts to flow fiercely through her veins.

Everything becomes dangerous in an instant, and the ‘fight or flight’ alarm system is triggered wildly. She stands, like a cornered animal threatened, ready to have her right to simple existence challenged, but the words that come out of this approaching woman’s mouth are not what Irene is expecting. This woman knows her, and as the alarm bells fade, Irene suddenly, surprisingly, realizes she knows her as well, from their shared childhood. And the unpacking begins.

Ruth Negga in “Passing” (Netflix)

Portrayed strongly by the magnificent Ruth Negga (“Loving“; Gate Theatre Dublin/St. Ann’s Hamlet), this woman is Clare, a former school friend of Irene’s but one that doesn’t actually bring forth comfort. The balance has shifted, yet Irene takes it all in with abundance. Clare is light-skinned, light enough to pass, with dyed blond hair, and as we watch Irene take all this in quickly, we also understand the undercoating of Irene so much more. “Passing” for white is an intoxicating act of defiance, for both women, but Clare has taken the game much further than an afternoon in an uptown hotel cafe.

Clare has embraced the facade fully, marrying a wealthy white man named John, played intensely by Alexander Skarsgård (“Big Little Lies“) and even taking on some of his more overt racist tones. That’s not to say Irene doesn’t understand. She does, fully, as she has her own deceptive constructs, but the disconnect that short circuits her thinking in that moment is sobering and uncomfortable. Clare has, unknowingly, released a storm from within, not just in her own complicated life, which she has, but in Irene’s world as well.

For the respectable Irene, this renewed acquaintance with Clare has thrown everything off balance, unleashing a complication she thought she had under control. It threatens her whole way of being, artificial as it is, with her successful black doctor husband Brian, well crafted by André Holland (“Moonlight“), their two sons, and the fancy home they live in up in Harlem. She even has a black maid whom she treats a bit harshly and a social circle she has curated with a clear vision and purpose.

It’s a well-crafted structure, meticulously-groomed to pass as middle class, classically and intuitively centered around her artistic friendship with the celebrated white novelist Hugh Wentworth, delightfully portrayed by Bill Camp (“12 Years a Slave“). He, like all those around him, is also playing in the world of passing, but in his case, it is his sexuality. I get that.

André Holland and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Netflix)

It’s clear the veneer will soon crack, but to what degree. An obsessive, complicated bond has been ignited between the two old friends. The toxicity is subtle, but clear, particularly in one quick shy moment when Irene’s sons ask their mother if she is going to lie down again to rest. It quickly passes by, that sharp suggestive moment, but the complication has been voiced. Irene is not in a good place, mentally or physically, and not just after the arrival of the transgressive Clare, who is struggling with her own disconnect to her black identity. They both can’t help focusing their troubles on one another, binding their unhappiness and discontent to each other with tight uncomfortable strings.

The danger is real, as real as it was for Irene in that hotel cafe, but the cinematic drama swoons the tension forward in a somewhat dreamlike delivery in the ravishingly beautiful cinematography from Eduard Grau (“Boy Erased“) and the production design by Nora Mendis (“The Sound of Silence“). With the elegant and eerie sounds of piano floating through the atmosphere like white show flakes coating the pathways beneath their feet, the monochromatic elegance paints the issues of race and skin color with a deceptive simplicity, producing layers of shame and discomfort that are beautiful, dreamy, and tensely hypnotic. It pulls you in, challenging the ideas of self-invention and shame dressed up together in fine clothes and pearl necklaces.

As a therapist and a gay man, I know the damage that shame and denial can do to the psyche, and it’s no wonder Irene’s marriage is cracking under the weight of her internal deception. The couple, while exhibiting a love that is palpable, can barely engage in a simple conversation without the walls peeling under the disturbance of anger and resentment, with the idea of escaping the country uncomfortable discussed and dismissed paired with the talk of lynching and the violent killings of black men.

Hall has dug into the dream and the nightmare with a snowy white brilliance, finding beautiful poetry in the well-crafted visuals, all while unpacking the darkness that lives inside those who purposefully hide or attempt to escape themselves. Everyone seems to be doing their own version of “Passing“, and almost all to the detriment of those around them. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen, just like “…Macbeth“, but the fatal flaw is one of shame, not greed or a thirst for power.

Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Netflix)

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