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Sundance 2021
Credit: Sundance Institute

At last year's Sundance Film Festival, Tessa Thompson starred in Sylvie's Love, a swoony 1960s riff on the kind of Technicolor mid-century melodramas Douglas Sirk used to make (it's now streaming on Amazon Prime). This year she returns to an even earlier era with Passing, a similarly faithful throwback that could easily slip into the lineup of a Turner Classic Movie marathon on a rainy afternoon, were it not for the particulars of its creation.

Based on the landmark 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Passing is also the directorial debut of actress Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Gift), and it feels like an actor's film: a delicate, melancholy study in creamy black and white, nearly every scene filled with careful silences and subtext. Thompson is Irene "Rene" Redfield, a wife and mother whose light skin sometimes allows her to be mistaken for Caucasian, though she rarely chooses to use that to her advantage. But when she steps cautiously into an upscale hotel dining hall on a scorching afternoon, seeking iced tea and a moment of relief from the heat, a pretty blonde across the room deliberately catches her eye.

It's actually an old classmate named Clare (Ruth Negga), now Mrs. Jack Bellew; Mr. Bellew, she's soon startled to find out, is a white man (played with a genteel sneer by Alexander Skarsgård), and he resolutely believes his wife is too. Clare, with her honey-colored bob and Carole Lombard eyebrows, is clearly a woman of her own invention — why else would a girl from New York City speak with a steel magnolia's honeyed Southern drawl? — but she's also tired of what she calls "this pale life of mine," and soon ingratiates herself into her new old friend's uptown world.

Not that that world is so drastically different, in its way: Rene has her own live-in housemaid, a spacious Harlem brownstone, and a loving doctor husband (André Holland) who has given her two happy boys. She spends most of her free time volunteering for the Negro League, putting on balls and tea dances that are increasingly patronized by people like Hugh (veteran character actor Bill Camp), a novelist drawn to the anthropological thrill of Otherness he finds there.

Soon Clare is a fixture at the Redfields' home, and though Holland's Brian claims not to care for her kind of fair-skinned beauty, Rene is increasingly disturbed by the lines her friend seems to cross not just willfully but recklessly, and the easy way she draws everyone to her. Jealousy can be a thankless role to play, and one that's hard to convey in a way that doesn't feel paranoid or petty; Thompson's mode for much of the film is to face it all with a sort of strangled civility, but she's fiercely compelling in the moments when her unfiltered self emerges.

Hall, who also wrote the screen adaptation, gives the movie a kind of hushed minor-key dreaminess, accompanied by musician Devanté Hyne's evocative piano score. Though her approach can also feel too tastefully ethereal — all the things these characters can't talk about wrapped up in face-framing closeups and bias-cut silk. Passing is Rene's story to tell, so we tend to see Clare almost entirely from her point of view, which is always at some kind of remove. Still, Negga infuses her with a kind of bright charisma undercut by sadness and some not-small amount of fury; she's lovely to watch, even as her inner world remains almost entirely a mystery. Grade: B

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