Too Close For Comfort

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland, Bill Camp and Alexander Skarsgard
Director/Scriptwriter: Rebecca Hall (from 1929 novel by Nella Larsen)
Composer: Devonte Hynes
Cinematography: Eda Grau
Rating: PG 13
Running Length: 98 Minutes 

The word “passing” can have many meanings. In today’s society, it means the death of someone, without using the word, “death,” they have “passed.” Years ago, the word “passing” also meant a person of color, with lighter skin, passing as a white person. Remember Jeanne Crain in the classic film, “Pinky," adapted from the 1946 novel "Quality" by Cid Ricketts Sumner.  Now, in this film, “Passing,” two young women of color, who were friends and lost contact with each other, accidentally meet, years later, and find that each has a successful husband, but that one woman is passing as white and her husband does not know her secret. This would be a startling revelation. Director/scriptwriter Rebecca Hall gives us this 1929-set film in black and white, adding to the intensity of the story. 

“Passing” begins with Irene (Tessa Thompson from “Westworld”) about ready to cross a street, when she sees a familiar face on the other side.  It is Clare (Ruth Negga from “Ad Astra”), a friend, years ago, from Harlem. They meet and it is Clare who is the enthusiastic one, inviting Irene to her hotel room. Husband John (Alexander Skarsgard from “The Stand”) is in town on business.  As time goes on, Clare pries into Irene’s life, and it is shocking to Irene that Clare has carried on the “passing”’ for years. Clare’s daughter “looks white,” so Clare feels safe. All of this is troubling to Irene, who, as the film goes on, is continually watchful of who she, as a woman of color, talks to, sits by and doesn’t attract attention.  On the other hand, Clare is out-going and with platinum blonde hair, is unafraid of consequences in society. This is the time when a woman of color could be asked why she is sitting in a hotel lobby (waiting for a friend) or is by-passed by clerks while trying to purchase something. It is what you live with. The film is on a slippery slope and the audience is intrigued by what might happen. 

“Passing” is a film between two actresses, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. One is shy and quiet with her emotions, while the other has “gotten away with it” for so long, she is fearless. The backdrop of above-average income elevates the film into another plane. There could be consequences, and the women are caught up in a game of secrets. It is uncomfortable and the expressions on Irene’s face becomes frightened. The camera lingers on the face of each actress and, as done in black and white, it makes an impression. Especially, “why?” As Clare says, she started to see if she could get away with it and that continued.  When out in public, the women are a contrast, as Irene hides behind her hat, a cloche, which is popular style today. Clare does not hide. 

As for the men in the film, Andre Holland (from “The Eddy”) as Irene’s husband, and Alexander Skarsgard as Clare’s husband, John, only have short scenes to make an impression, otherwise it is the women all the way. There is one telling moment, though in which John comes upon Clare and Irene having lunch.  Irene is nervously “passing” for a few hours and getting away with it.  The tension builds in the film, slowly, like sand in an hourglass that goes down grain by grain, you wonder what is going to happen here? 

*Director Rebecca Hall explored her own family history through the PBS television show, “Find Your Roots.”


Copyright 2021 Marie Asner