SUNDANCE REVIEW – “Passing”
Directorial debuts are always fascinating to witness, but directorial debuts from actors who have been in front of the camera for a while are particularly interesting. They already have an established knowledge of how sets work, and especially have an idea of how actors operate. This doesn’t mean that their films always turn out better than others, but it’s always a bode of confidence when I see a talented performer step behind the camera and try to work their magic into something of a new craft. Rebecca Hall is the latest actor-turned-director to step behind the camera, with her debut Passing. Set in New York City in the 1920s, the film centers around Irene (Tessa Thompson) reuniting with her friend Clare (Ruth Negga) – what at first seems like a normal encounter and reconnection of friends quickly turns into something that makes them question the lives their living and the roles they play in society.
From the moment the film begins, Rebecca Hall establishes herself as a talent to look out for behind the camera. Between the stunning black-and-white cinematography with so much detail to everything in frame to the steadiness and gentle focus she has on the characters she’s bringing to life – there is so much beauty and personality in her voice as a filmmaker. Where I found the screenplay to falter at certain points, there was never a moment where I questioned how well Rebecca Hall could handle the source material or heavy subject matter at hand. It all felt so naturalistic to me, and I can see her only getting better as she evolves further into the craft.
A majority of the film hinges on long sequences where the characters are simply exchanging dialogue. For me, the dialogue was mostly engaging despite a few drawn-out or undercooked sequences where it felt a bit too on the nose. But luckily, on top of Rebecca Hall’s direction, everyone in the cast comes to play with absolutely fantastic performances. The two leads, Thompson and Negga, are absolutely sublime in this film. You buy their friendship from the moment they exchange dialogue on-screen, and as their relationship evolves and unravels you’re fully invested in seeing how it’ll turn out by the end.
There’s also quite a lovely supporting cast within the always excellent Andre Holland, Bill Camp, and Alexander Skarsgard who delivers quite the menacing performance. A lot of this is so great, which is why I wish the writing was just a tad bit stronger. But even despite my gripes with the screenplay, it is still fairly effective by the end and had me thinking about its themes for days after I viewed the film. I’m not really sure how well it’ll play with awards bodies, but after Netflix acquired it at the festival, I’m predicting they’ll sit on it until later in the year so they can really show off how well everyone did in-front of and behind the camera.