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Passing movie review: Rebeca Hall’s brave

With her head strategically lowered under a cloche hat that is shielding most of her face, we see a woman making her way through a toy store in what we soon learn is central New York. From afar, we would not imagine this person to be anything other than an upper-middle-class white woman, in a summer dress running errands in the city, in a milieu that is decidedly white. It is only when the camera gives us a slightly oblique view of her face, is when we realise that we are looking at someone who is “passing” – a word used to signify the act of coloured people “passing” as white. But we are still perplexed.
Renowned actress and first-time director Rebecca Hall choosing to adapt Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing in black and white, is not just a stylistic manoeuvre. By eliminating colour from a story that is hinged on skin tone and the world it carries, Hall keeps the audience unsettled, from start to finish – almost as unsettled the film’s key protagonist Irene (Tessa Thompson), whose world almost capsizes when her former childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga) walks back into her life, after a chance meeting.

On a sweltering afternoon of errands, Irene cautiously walks into Drayton Hotel to escape the heat. She is nervous under her ‘white cover’ – the premium Drayton is the last place this Harlem resident should be seen in. When she catches the gaze of this gorgeous blonde woman, staring at her from across the room, Irene is nearly about to flee when the lady stops her. It takes her a few long moments to recognise her childhood friend Clare from Chicago who she has not seen in at least a dozen years. As she sizes up Clare’s blonde and bright self with a close and confused gaze, Irene slowly realises what she is looking at. As for Clare, she candidly admits that as much as a strange coincidence their meeting is, it was also something she had been hoping for.

The tension between them is palpable – they both know the other is passing. While for Irene, it is a tool she selectively uses for convenience, for Clare, passing is survival, a ticket to her new life, or rather life itself, as her boorish, racist, and very rich husband John (Alexander Skarsgard) has no idea of her coloured roots. But meeting Irene reignites in her a “wild desire” to reconnect with her self-denied blackness, if not entirely return to it, as she tells her in a letter. Despite Irene’s efforts to sever ties, Clare soon ingratiates herself into her friend’s upper middle-class Harlem life, ostensibly built on a sound foundation of brownstone and ornate furniture, that revolves around her doctor husband Brian Redfield (Andre Holland) and their two boys. We also soon realise that Irene’s efforts to keep her friend at bay, may not have been in all earnestness. Clare and Irene are drawn to each other like magnets, and they could not be more opposing forces. The former, who has chosen a life of hiding, is unbridled in every other way, be it in her boldness or her sexuality, and her honesty when she steps into Harlem, every other day, under some ruse or another.

For her, her “pale life” as a white woman is a gilded cage that she is desperate to escape from every chance she gets. In Irene’s world, everything appears to be in order – she is pretty much a doyenne of her neighborhood, an activist volunteering for a Negro Welfare organization, while also playing mistress to her black maid at home. Her marriage looks stable, and her life seems complete. To Brian’s exasperated musing, “Who is satisfied being anything?”, Irene says, “I am”. But in Thompson’s shaky voice and superlative expressions, we feel the force of everything that is simmering under a veneer of stability and satisfaction. So, then who is more trapped under the weight of their choices – is it Irene or Clare?

Even though she is not the active narrator, like in Larsen’s book, Irene is our stand-in in Hall’s film too. All that we see unfolds through what Irene sees and feels. Clare’s choice to live a lie repulses Irene who also finds her “extraordinarily beautiful.” There are ample hints of currents of desire between them. The film begs the question that what is it that Irene is drawn to – is it Clare’s privilege and “freedom” or is it Clare herself? As she watches a footloose Clare own the dancefloor, Irene tells her white novelist friend Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp) that “beauty is emotional excitement in the presence of something strange, and perhaps even repugnant to you.” The topic may have been a certain male charmer in the room, but it cannot be clearer that it is Clare she is talking about.

As for Clare, she cannot seem to stay away from Irene for too long, but is it the pull of Irene’s “honest” life or is it something more? Hall packs in a wealth of layers in monotone. As the more fragile bits of Irene’s interior world unfold, she is unraveled as the classic ‘unreliable narrator,’ who is suddenly unsure of everything she has built her life on. Or perhaps, she was not sure of anything in the first place, and was simply playing the roles life assigned to her, or she assigned to herself. With Clare’s entry, the cracks begin to appear in all that Irene has built so carefully – her marriage, her worldviews, and her entire sense of self. A close shot of a crack in her bedroom ceiling appears as a leitmotif in the film as the events progress – a thin black fissure in a white backdrop, just as their own world, in the New York of early 1920s.

For a film that is focused on harsh realities, Passing unfolds like a daydream. Cinematographer Eduard Grau deftly uses daylight and distorted lens treatment to create some surreal imagery that stays in our heads. The dance of curtains in an afternoon breeze, an embrace under dead branches, a stretching of arms under a flood of sunlight, or pristine white snow falling on dark skin – it is sheer poetry that we see. For the most part, the film is a story told through silences. Grau compliments the director’s brilliance with his close and gentle study of the faces of the characters. A tight aspect ratio of 4:3 lends every frame a boxy feel that further underscores the constraints the characters are feeling. Hall gives her actors ample emotional freedom to bring out their characters, and every actor milks the opportunity. But in terms of framing, they are not allowed to breathe. They must act within certain boundaries, just like the roles they are playing — another instance of cinematic brilliance that Hall achieves in her directorial debut.

Look out for how Grau and Hall use mirrors to unpack the duality – characters standing too close appear apart in their reflection and vice versa. This may be a period film, but Hall steers clear of opulent, expansive sets of marketplaces, streets, and so on. Instead, she works with simple yet masterful strokes of technique to bring out the internal conflicts of her characters, such as a tracking shot of a portion of the street outside Irene’s home, another recurring motif to suggest a confined routine, wherein she walks the exact number of steps, greeting the same neighbour everyday, before reaching her doorstep. And then there is this haunting jazz piano score that is almost another character in the film, with all its beautiful, discordant notes. Trust Hall to unearth this gem composed by Ethiopian pianist Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, and use it so elegantly to tell this story.

Negga, a picture of glamour and grace under that blonde dyed hair; her piercing stare when she looks at Irene, the actress brings alive Clare’s pain and rebellion in every expression and every bit of her body language. Negga lives and breathes the beautiful stubbornness of Clare, and it is hard to take our eyes off her. In sharp contrast, Thompson plays Irene with a studied restraint and contemplation, and yet in her searching glances and simmering restlessness, she makes you feel Irene’s extreme discomfort with her own self, where she is hiding a lot while appearing to be living her truth. She too has chosen a life of pretense like Clare, and yet nothing like her. These two are tied together by their roots and flung apart by their choices. It is this constant push-and-pull dance they are caught in, which is almost cathartic, and makes them soulmates of sorts — “a thing that cannot be registered” in Irene’s words, but whose existence cannot be denied.

Passing shows how race is more of a social construct than a biological truth. These women are light enough to pass off as white, and yet the truth of their roots confines them in a white world. And more than the realities of colour, the film is also about how we pass for all sorts of things in our lives. It is about perception and context. There is no monolithic version of blackness or whiteness. Hall choosing coloured actors for these two roles, and treating them under a black-and-white lens, is a brave, bold, and brilliant choice. We can never tell how black they are or how white, and it makes us think about how we perceive these colours as binaries. But they are not. Visually, they are a thousand layers of grey, just like the film is.

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