British actress Rebecca Hall turns out to be the perfect first-time director for her adaptation of the Harlem Renaissance novel “Passing,” by Nella Larsen.
The 1929 book deals with two Black women, both of them light-skinned, but with one of them passing for white. And Hall, the daughter of Royal Shakespeare Company founder Peter Hall, is the maternal granddaughter of a Black man who passed as White.
So she brings some personal history and sensitivity to the tell the story of Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga), the latter of whom has dyed her hair blonde and has married a white banker from Chicago. She’s built a life around “passing” as white, and her husband John, an unrepentant racist, has no idea of her true identity.
Irene, meanwhile, is married to Brian (Andre Holland), a Harlem physician, and she is a fixture in the Black social scene. The movie opens with Irene walking down the streets of Manhattan on an especially hot summer day. She’s wearing a broad-rimmed hat that helps obscure her hair, and she realizes that most people she’s passing on the street don’t realize that she’s Black. So she decides to go into an all-White establishment to get a refreshing drink.
She’s clearly hoping no one will notice her and that she can have a drink in peace. But a woman across the room starts staring at her. And then that woman gets up and starts walking toward Irene. You can tell that Irene fears her ruse might be discovered, and she starts to get up and leave. But, instead, the approaching woman effusively calls out her name. It’s Clare, a childhood friend. And she quickly tells Irene that she’s “passing” as White and enjoying the wealth of her banker husband.
Clare also reveals that she has a daughter, who was born with light skin, and even though she wants a son, she’s afraid that he’ll be born “dark,” so she has taken measures to not have another child.
The scene is so wrought with emotion because it’s clear that Clare truly loves Irene. But Irene is rather shocked.
Both Thompson and Negga bring such subtlety to their performances, and Negga, with her coiffed blonde hair, talks with a Southern lilt, as if she’s Blanche Dubois from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
The connection between the two is not merely friendly. It also seems sexual, and the desire makes Irene much more uncomfortable than it does Clare.
So there’s a danger for both women that is hard to ignore. With Clare’s open embrace of Irene, she risks having her identity exposed, especially since Irene has a “dark” husband that no one will mistake for white.
But Clare insists on pursuing the friendship while she’s in New York, and Irene warily accepts her into her Harlem home, while Clare’s husband works on his banking business.
The adapted screenplay by Hall explores not only the questions of race, but also the questions of sexual identity — and the notion that gay and lesbians can pass as “straight” if they desire. So there’s the notion that Irene, who passes as white when needed, also might be passing as straight, just as Clare might be doing.
At one point, Clare writes a note to Irene, admitting her “wild desire” to be close friends with Irene. But Irene doesn’t return the note. So Clare comes to Irene’s Harlem brownstone to discuss the situation. Eventually, Clare worms her way into Irene’s heart as well as charming Irene’s husband and children.
If you’ve read the novel, you know how the story unfolds, but let’s just say that the movie is gorgeously filmed in black and white by cinematographer Eduard Grau, a Spaniard who did similar fine work with 2009’s “A Single Man,” directed by Tom Ford.
The aspect ratio for the film is the old Hollywood standard 4:3, which helps give the movie a boxed-in look, similar to the racial and romantic constraints of 1920s New York.
There’s much more to say about the movie, but that can wait for a full review when the movie is released, most likely later this year, pending a sale of distribution rights.
“Passing” pairs nicely with another prominent Sundance film, “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World.”
Like “Passing,” the “Beautiful Boy” documentary explores romantic and sexual desires, focusing on Swedish actor Bjorn Andresen, who played Tadzio in Italian director Lucino Visconti’s 1971 film, “Death in Venice.”
For a bit of background, Visconti was openly gay at a time when it was less socially acceptable. And he went in search of the perfect Tadzio, who becomes the obsession of the dying composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) in “Death in Venice.” When casting the role of Tadzio, Visconti said he was going to find “the most beautiful boy in the world.” He proclaimed success when he announced his casting of Andresen, then 15 years old.
The documentary, directed by Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri, uses archival footage of Visconti on his search for the most beautiful boy, and shows his first meeting with Andresen, who seems to be a highly uncomfortable teen with no acting experience — and unaccustomed to the commands of a director who tells him to take off his shirt.
With this kind of early footage, you have to wonder how wise it is for such a boy to be put in such a situation. So you also wonder: Were his parents there? The answer is no. Andresen never knew who his father was, and we’re told that his mother “disappeared,” and that Andresen was being raised by his grandmother. And she’s clearly the one wanting to have a celebrity grandson.
We also quickly see the results of Andresen’s exposure to such a life — because the documentarians are flashing back and forth between archival footage and current footage of an old man who lives alone in a modest, dirty flat. The film thus becomes a documentation of Andresen’s very messy and unsuccessful life, much of which can be traced to his appearance in “Death in Venice” and the surrounding worldwide publicity he faced during the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
He became a teen idol — so famous that Japan manga creators used his likeness for their heroes.
Underneath all of this story, there’s the haunting feeling that Andresen might have been victimized by gay men during his youth. We see the older Andresen with his girlfriend, so we surmise that he’s not gay. But we have to wonder what was going on after the film’s premiere — and during a whole year when an unidentified gay man in Paris paid for Andresen’s stay at a hotel and gave him an allowance of 500 francs per day.
During interviews with the adult Andresen, he acknowledges that he was very naive, but he never indicates that he was sexually victimized. So the question is unanswered.
We do, however, gradually get the details of his early marriage, his failed attempts at becoming a musician and actor, the dissolution of his marriage — and eventually the introduction of a daughter who is not even mentioned until late in the tale.
The revelations come as the elder Andresen searches for clues to what happened to his mother. It turns out that she appears to have committed suicide and that her body was found in the woods. He discovers one of his mother’s last letters, which reads like a farewell. He also tries to track down the identity of his father, with little success.
In all, it’s a sensitive portrait of a man whose early promise in life has not been fulfilled. It’s rather remarkable that Andresen trusted the directors to tell such a heartbreaking story of sadness. But by the end of the story, viewers will probably still have questions.