Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sundance with Abe: Passing

I’m thrilled to be covering the Sundance Film Festival for the eighth time. This year, I’m not in Park City, Utah, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Directed by Rebecca Hall

There is an element of bigotry and discrimination that comes from recognizing that someone else belongs to a group that could be defined as other. Not knowing someone’s religion or heritage, for instance, might result in a shift in treatment when that aspect of who they are is revealed. It’s not nearly as easy to hide the color of a person’s skin, but there is a willful ignorance that many who hate for baseless reasons show for something that should be equally obvious and unimportant. Not being seen as a member of a particular group may invite the open sharing of sentiments that would be seen as unacceptable and derogatory if their identity was more apparent.

Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives in Harlem in the 1920s with her successful doctor husband, Brian (André Holland), and two children. She gets an unexpected flashback to her past when she runs into Clare (Ruth Negga) in a hotel tearoom. Their ability to pass as white due to their lighter skin becomes a point of contention when Irene meets Clare’s husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), an unapologetic racist who has no idea his wife is actually Black. Despite Irene’s feelings, Clare becomes a regular fixture in her life, challenging the way that she engages with her family and her world.

This is an adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen that marks actress Rebecca Hall’s debut as writer and director. Shot in black-and-white, the stylistic choices help to make this film’s story and message even stronger. There is a gorgeous vibrancy to every scene, with vivid costumes and set decorations that highlight the luxury that both Irene and Clare experience, even though they’re told by some that they shouldn’t have access to any of it. There are also layers of complexity within the narrative, including Irene’s efforts to shield her children from the harsh truths she knows all too well about the world, which Brian believes they should be exposed to even at a young age.

The two performances at the center of this film are emphatic and feel very strongly grounded in fitting its period setting. Thompson plays Irene as bold and unwilling to put aside her beliefs and opinions for the sake of others, while Negga, an Oscar nominee several years ago for another formidable race-related turn in “Loving,” brings a dramatic flair to every line Clare utters, intent on maintaining the persona she’s built for herself. This story has a different relevance today than it did when the novel was first written, but its content is still important and brought to the screen in a very meaningful, worthwhile, and beautiful way.


No comments: