Rebecca Hall Makes Her Directorial Debut With Netflix’s Painfully Tasteful ‘Passing’

Rebecca Hall, well-known British actress and daughter of mixed-race American opera singer Maria Ewing, makes her directorial debut with Passing, out on Netflix this week. Adapted by Hall from Nella Larson’s novel of the same name, Passing tells the story of Reeny and Clare (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga), two light-skinned high school friends, the latter of whom is now “passing” as white and married to a racist white man in 1920s Harlem.

Hall’s pedigree, as a theater actress at Cambridge and daughter of the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, shows in a film that feels very much like a stage play or a Masterpiece Theatre production; tasteful, erudite, meticulously staged and impeccably acted. Which is to say, it feels more like a film I know I should like than one I actually do. In fact Passing is so painfully mannered that it doesn’t seem to have much room to breathe. The characters all talk the way people probably wrote in letters more so than they actually spoke in daily life, a kind of theatrical realism, intellectualized until it’s slightly anodyne. “Clare? Why, I haven’t seen her in an unmentionable time,” Reeny says in one voluble moment.

Passing sets up its premise early. Thompson’s painfully proper Irene “Reeny” bumps into her old friend Clare (Negga), a modern cosmopolitan type who Reeny soon realizes has been “passing” as white. Soon her husband, played by Alexander Skarsgard, shows up, revealing that he has “affectionally” nicknamed Clare “Nig.” Clare presses him for details, and Reeny is clearly mortified as he reveals that he doesn’t just dislike “Negroes,” he hates them. Of course, he doesn’t realize that his own wife is African-American herself, and the situation has trapped Reeny in a kind of non-consensual passing, forced to keep up the ruse out of fidelity to Clare and fear for both their safety.

It’s an interesting, provocative situation, but the story doesn’t really evolve from there, it kind of just treads water, coasting on this initial provocation until a grandly symbolic deus ex machina ending. Symbolic of what I’m not quite sure, but it seems to be going more for symbolism than realism. The flapper clothes and art deco stylings are all rendered in gauzy black and white cinematography. Which feels like another gesture of conspicuous symbolism. It invites us to ponder the artistic gesture of it all while keeping us at arm’s length from the actual feelings of its characters, who are trying to make their way in a multi-hued yet painfully colorist world. It feels less driven by the characters than by its creator making a choice.

The great André Holland, again playing a doctor in early 20th century New York just like he did in The Knick, shows up as Reeny’s husband, Brian, who seems intent on exposing his children to the horrors of race relations in America. Reeny, meanwhile, chairwoman of the Negro Welfare League, would prefer to shield them from all the gory details of the latest lynchings. This kind of thing takes up most of the movie, two characters taking opposite sides of various racial debates. Clare wants to “pass,” Reeny claims she’s happy just the way she is. Brian wants to move the family abroad, Reeny doesn’t. Issues are discussed!

Reeny seems determined to avoid Clare, and Clare equally determined to butt into her life, to experience the Harlem Renaissance she’s been missing while cloistered amongst the whites. Brian seems to have a thing for the overtly sexual Clare, who represents something different than his white gloved wife, but not much passes between them beyond suggestive glances. We’re left to infer.

These characters all seem so locked into “types,” so studiously crafted to represent issues in debates, that they don’t have much space to evolve or to banter or to simply exist as believable human beings. There’s one scene, a party at the Negro League where we meet Bill Camp’s louche intellectual, Hugh, in which the film finally feels like a living breathing thing rather than just a machine for setting up premises. It’s the lone scene where the characters seem like they just get to hang out and interact with one another rather than be stand-ins and props for various societal issues. They’re mostly these debate club sock puppets.

Passing seems so intent on being Symbolic and Dramatic and Meaningful that it forgets to just be, to try to live in the characters just a little before forcing them into various provocative dichotomies. When the Big Ending comes, it does so, predictably, feeling like a forced attempt at having something Very Dramatic Happen, rather than as a natural culmination of believable characters interacting. It offers the illusion of having been pregnant with meaning. If only it had been pregnant with being interesting.

‘Passing’ is available now in theaters and on Netflix. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his film review archive here.