Box-ticking period drama ‘Passing’ fails to bring its characters to life

Tough tale: Tessa Thompson stars in the period drama ‘Passing’.

PASSING *1/2 (97 minutes) M
A strong contender for Most Overrated Film of 2021, Passing, based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, addresses the prickly issue of how African Americans with light complexions once “passed” themselves off as white people for social, personal and financial advantage.

Well-to-do middle-class Reenie (Tessa Thompson), who lives in a big house in Harlem with her lovely family and a maid, runs in to such a person while dining in a lovely restaurant.

Clare (Ruth Negga) is an old friend who Reenie barely recognizes at first. Retiring to her plush hotel room, Clare reveals her personal circumstances, happily introducing her husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), a charming, respectful gent who is racist to the core and believes his wife is white.

Shot in black-and-white using the old-school 4:3 academy format, the film occasionally has the look of a classic film but never takes on the feel of one.

Seemingly too scared to confront the issues it raises, writer/director Rebecca Hall hits the film’s hot-button topics with the softest of touches, the stilted dialogue, long takes, longer pauses, lack of pace and sotto voce performances making much of the film – and it hurts to say this – simply boring.

The film has been lauded to the skies, yet the directorial debut from Hall, a talented actress (Frost/Nixon; Vicky Cristina Barcelona; The Town) comes off as an emotionally dry exercise in cinematic posturing, more intent on progressive box-ticking and tapping into the topicality of present-day political discourse than developing the emotional lives of the story’s characters.

To wit, Reenie’s husband and children are barely developed, her sons moving through the piece like cyphers.

Clare, too, remains two-dimensional throughout: a pathetic shadow of a person who has traded her racial identity for a life of wealth and white privilege, she is a particularly muted soul.

Given the strength of the assembled cast, Hall’s performance direction is under-stated to the point of somnolence.

It’s just a theory, but there’s a strong sense the sensitive subject matter of Passing, as distinct from its execution, has earned the film a lot of free passes and adulation it simply doesn’t deserve; the narrative seems to lack a third act and the film itself lacks a cohesive style, something the use of black-and-white tries, and fails, to paper over.

Here’s to Hall’s second feature being a far more rounded, satisfying work.