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‘Passing’ a stunning story of race and pretense

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson meet the intense acting demands of actress Rebecca Hall’s gorgeous directorial debut.

Clare (Ruth Negga, left), a Black woman who is living as though she’s white, is delighted to reunite with old friend Irene (Tessa Thompson) in “Passing.”
Netflix

The wonderful and versatile actor Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “The Town,” “The Prestige”) makes a stunning directorial debut with “Passing,” a gorgeously photographed period piece social/racial drama which is entirely in black and white but is always in shades of gray. Though the story moves at a sometimes glacial pace and the putatively surprising ending is something we can see coming down Fifth Avenue, this is a consistently engrossing and beautifully performed set piece, led by towering twin lead performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga.

Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, “Passing” is set in Jazz Age New York City, opening on a summer day when it’s hot as hell and concluding in the dead of winter when it’s as if hell has frozen over. In a quietly effective, subtly rendered opening scene that sets the visual and auditory tones for the story, Thompson’s Irene has come downtown to do some shopping, her visage partially obscured by the wide-brimmed hat she’s wearing — as if she’d rather the white patrons in the toy store and in the Tea Room of a posh hotel not ascertain she’s Black.

We can feel the alarm bells coursing through Irene when a glamorous blonde (Ruth Negga) recognizes her from across the room, strides over and re-introduces herself: She’s Irene’s childhood friend Clare, whom she hasn’t seen in at least a dozen years. Since then, Clare has completely reinvented herself, in shocking fashion; she lives in Chicago with her wealthy husband and their daughter — and she is passing as white.

Clare seems almost desperately happy to see her old friend, and she insists Irene join her for a drink in her hotel suite (it’ll have to be on the sly, as Prohibition is still the order of the day). Before Irene can make her gracious escape, Clare’s oily, slick and loathsome husband John (Alexander Skarsgard) enters, and it’s only a matter of minutes before John reveals himself to be an unapologetic racist, and Irene can only imagine how damaged Claire must be to hitch her wagon to this monster of a man.

Most of “Passing” is set in and around the brownstone in Harlem where Irene leads a comfortable life with her doctor husband Brian (Andre Holland) and her two sons, who are getting to be of the age where their father believes they should no longer be sheltered from the ugly racism permeating the country. (Brian often talks of the entire family leaving “this hellish place.”) The relationship between Irene and Brian is respectful but drained of passion; they constantly seem to be passing each other in the front hallway, as Brian works long hours and Irene is dedicating herself to organizing an upcoming Negro Welfare League dance where the prominent white writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp) will be the guest of honor.

When the persistent Clare shows up on their doorstep and starts ingratiating herself into the lives of the family and their housekeeper Zu (Ashley Ware Jenkins), both Irene and Brian are eventually smitten with the “blonde princess,” as Brian calls her. As Clare works every room she’s in like a mix of Zelda Fitzgerald, Blanche du Bois and Mary Pickford, her charms work on almost everyone — with the exception of the condescending Wentworth, whose closeted interests lie elsewhere.

With Clare opining that everyone is passing for something they’re not in one form or another and much discussion about race, gender, social standing and sexuality, “Passing” is not always the most subtle film — but the dialogue is rich, the cinematography by Edu Grau (in standard 4:3 aspect ratio) is breathtakingly beautiful, and the costumes and production design are first rate. Mostly though, this is a showcase for brilliant acting, from the layered work by Thompson and Negga through the invaluable supporting performances by Holland, Camp and Skarsgard. This is a very personal project for Rebecca Hall, whose grandfather was Black but passed for white, and she has delivered an exquisitely crafted gem.