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‘Passing’ Movie Review: This New Period Drama on Netflix is a Masterpiece

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga star in the new period drama adaptation of Nella Larsen's classic novel.

PASSING MOVIE REVIEW

Passing Movie Review featured image with Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson
Passing Movie Review. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing. Photo: Netflix

Rebecca Hall’s Passing is a movie that will stay with me for years. It expertly tackles the complex topics of race and identity in an intimate way. The film is based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 book of the same name, the title alluding to African Americans who could “pass” for white because of their light skin.

PASSING: THE STORY

The period drama centers around two former childhood friends (both biracial) living in entirely different circumstances as adults in the 1920s. 

One, Irene (Tessa Thompson), lives happily in Harlem with her black husband, Brian Redfield (Andre Holland), while the other woman, Clare (Ruth Negga), passes as white and lives with her wealthy and racist husband, John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgård). 

Ruth Negga and Alexander Skarsgard
Photo: Netflix

When they reconnect after many years, both of their worlds change – leading to a mutual obsession that ultimately results in tragedy.

Irene is both in awe and disgusted by Clare’s lifestyle. While Clare, on the other hand, envies the life Irene lives. As they become more enmeshed in each other’s lives, Irene becomes more antagonistic toward Clare and jealous – especially as Clare grows closer to her husband.

passing 2021 publicity still
Photo: Netflix

But is Irene’s jealousy directed at her husband or with Clare? Is Irene attracted to Clare sexually and repulsed by it? While open to interpretation, it’s hard to ignore the longing glances, the touch of a hand, the subtextual dialogue, and camera movements suggesting as much. It has always been one interpretation of the novel – ambiguous as it is.

THE CAST OF PASSING (2021)

Tessa Thompson in Passing Movie
Tessa Thompson in Passing. Photo: Netflix

Passing is written and directed by Rebecca Hall and stars Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Bill Camp, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, and Alexander Skarsgård.

But it’s the performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga that carry the film.

Tessa Thompson gives one of her best performances as Irene, while Ruth Negga is luminescent in her role as Clare. Both actresses give performances so powerful; you can feel their emotions in every scene of the film.

Thompson has an incredible ability to make you feel Irene’s pain, her joys, her fears, her jealousies, all of it.

Ruth Negga in Passing Movie
Ruth Negga in Passing. Photo: Netflix

Meanwhile, Negga manages to evoke several different emotions in Passing using an accent reminiscent of Judy Garland. While Thompson gives a showier, meatier performance, Negga is the one who haunts you. Her eyes convey every word she never says. It’s stunning to watch.

It would be impossible to imagine Passing not receiving some awards for the performances or Hall’s expert direction.

THE MOVIE’S STYLE

Besides the strong directing, excellent acting, and writing, the look of Passing is gorgeous. From the beautifully crafted costumes to the cinematography, Passing is a visual treat. Even the music score is good.

Hall chose to film the movie in black and white giving it an old Hollywood feel while also adding to its timelessness. Every scene captivated me, and by the end, I had more questions than answers! But that ambiguity in both the book and film makes it even more powerful as a narrative.

Fans of the novel will appreciate that Hall is faithful to it while also not shying away from highlighting themes relevant to the audience today.

OVERALL THOUGHTS ON PASSING

passing movie with Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing. Photo: Netflix

Overall, Hall adapts the classic novel in a minimalist but effective style. If you appreciate artistic and thoughtful period dramas, then you must see Passing. You won’t regret it.

Just be prepared for the dramatic ending! I’m still thinking about what happened days after watching the movie.

Content Note: PG-13 for racial slurs – very mild.

Where to Watch: Netflix

Have you watched the new Passing movie? What did you think of Rebecca Hall’s adaptation? Did you enjoy the film and performances? Do you agree with our movie review of Passing? Discuss in the comments below!

Five corsets rating

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By on November 18th, 2021

About Amber Topping

Amber works as a blogger/writer full-time and fell in love with stories and imagination at an early age. She has a Humanities and Film Degree from BYU, co-created The Silver Petticoat Review, contributed as a writer to various magazines, and has an MS in Publishing from Pace University, where she received the Publishing Award of Excellence and wrote her thesis on transmedia, Jane Austen, and the romance genre. Her ultimate dreams are publishing books, writing and producing movies, traveling around the world, and forming a creative village of talented storytellers trying to change the world through art.

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