Passing seems like a sure contender come Oscar season. Based on an acclaimed novel by Nella Larsen, Passing has some award-worthy acting from Tessa Thompson (Irene) and Ruth Negga (Clare), a good supporting cast featuring André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, and Gbenga Akinnagbe, and a thoughtful approach from first-time director Rebecca Hall, who also wrote it and produced it. (Hall is an actor, most recently in Godzilla vs. Kong.)
Larsen's book is more accurately described as a novella, and Hall manages to get most of the book into the 99-minute running time. The film isn't fast-moving ... in fact, it gets a bit slow at times ... but viewers, both those who know the book and those who don't, may find events confusing at times. I watched with a large group of family, and most of us found a lot of the movie unclear. Everyone seemed to want more context, more background, more clear explanation of the characters and their actions.
Yes, but ... it's true that Hall lets the audience do some of the work of breaking down the story. She doesn't hand out in-movie CliffsNotes; she allows us to think for ourselves. I'm not sure this works ... as I say, most of my family were just confused. But Hall's vision, reflecting Larsen's, allows for ambiguity.
In the book, Irene is the clear narrator, and the unreliable nature of her perspective is clear. Once you realize the story is told solely from her perspective, you can begin to lose trust in her version of events. Hall doesn't go as far with this in her movie. Irene is the main character, but the perspective is more omniscient. We miss the ways the narrative is unreliable ... events seem more straightforward.
I liked the movie more after I thought about it. As I watched, I found my mind wandering, but reflecting back, I felt Hall had made some astute choices. Filming in B&W foregrounded questions about the tenuous concept of black and white "races" ... combined with the 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, Passing has the look of a film made in the 1920s, which feels appropriate. I can't say Passing is a movie for everyone, but I suspect it will look even better on subsequent viewings.