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Under the Skin

Edu Grau/Sundance Institute

Passing (2021)

The four main actors are some of the best-looking currently working, more importantly with the acting skill to render dialogue basically unnecessary, and yet “Passing” is a bore. It should have been a tense domestic horror, since the plot revolves around a life-threatening, decades-long lie. On a sweltering day in Irene (Tessa Thompson) escapes the New York City heat in a cool hotel lobby where she spots Claire (Ruth Negga), whom she hasn’t seen since high school. Claire brings her up to her room, where they order a teapot of whiskey – this is during Prohibition – and start chatting, until Claire’s husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) interrupts. Three things become immediately clear: Claire is living as a white woman, the proudly racist John has no idea that his wife is black, and while Irene doesn’t normally pass for white herself, she can should she so choose.

At least, that’s how it ought to have been done, but first-time director Rebecca Hall, who also adapted Nella Larsen’s novella herself, botches the big reveal. It’s a frustrating mistake, not least because the mood of the opening sequence – a blurry sidewalk full of street noise, coalescing into two white women walking into a toyshop, where they knock over a golliwog that Irene hands back to them – strongly establishes the stressful city mood and the dangers that await everyone the moment they leave Harlem. And Irene is firmly of the Harlem elite; her thoughtful husband Brian (André Holland) is a doctor and they are raising their sons in a gorgeous brownstone with a maid to handle the heavy work. This leaves Irene plenty of time to drowse on the settee and devote herself to charity work under the aegis of a white novelist, Hugh (Bill Camp). But it also means that when Claire begs to be integrated into Irene’s high black society, Irene cannot think of a good reason to say no. After all, they were great friends as girls, and she has both the time and the money.

But what ought to be the story of a friendship rebuilt despite Claire’s lie and the risk of John finding out becomes a homework exercise. At one point, a character even says, “We’re all of us passing for something.” The script is talky to the point of silliness, such as the long sequence at a dinner dance where Hugh and Irene discuss Claire while hardly showing Ms. Negga. Brian and Irene have repeated arguments over how to discuss lynching with their sons, or whether they should emigrate to South America to escape American racism, but the film should have focused on the contrasting choices Claire and Irene have made to survive. Mr. Skarsgård once again weaponizes his good looks to make a repulsive character understandable, and Mr. Holland once again radiates a capable ferocity, but this is a woman’s picture and actresses of this caliber should have burned through the lens. Irene is feeling alienated and trapped even before Claire swoops in with her pleasant manner, but instead of asserting herself, she openly agrees that Claire should be everyone’s favorite? Ms. Negga relies on her charm and butterfly physicality to express a life lived on the surface, while Ms. Thompson has to do the unappreciated constant worrying of the details that make life simple for everyone else.

It’s not Ms. Thompson’s fault, but there’s a vacuum at the heart of “Passing” that not even Eduard Grau’s uncommonly gorgeous black-and-white cinematography can fill. The different protections the women enjoy – Irene’s money and Claire’s privilege – are based on their marriages, and the double bind of submitting to husbands’ expectations as well as the world’s should have added up to more than the shot of Irene after Brian and Claire have gone out the door. Ms. Hall’s script needed a more confident director who knew how to show instead of tell.


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