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Review: ‘Passing’ features strong performances and visual style

After a successful debut at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “Passing” — based on the 1929 novel of the same name from Nella Larsen — is one of Netflix’s newest drama releases. 

“Passing” is the story of Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson), an African American woman in 1920s New York who experiences a number of lifestyle changes after she is reintroduced to a childhood friend (played by Ruth Negga) who manages to pass as a white woman.

Right out of the gate, the most interesting and overall biggest strength of this film is its visual style. Set in black and white and 4:3 aspect ratio, the film commits to a visual tone that works wonders for the story that unfolds, making great use of the lighting of various settings in combination with the monochrome visuals to create something that is a constant beauty to behold.

Even with the recent multitude of 4:3 films and black and white released independently, “Passing” shows that there is still a great deal that can be accomplished with the visual style, and with the right talent behind it, there is no doubt it will leave an impact on the viewer.

The other major strength of this film comes in the form of Tessa Thompson’s lead performance. She does a terrific job as a character who is almost constantly at odds and in an emotional battle with her own viewpoints that evolve and develop blissfully throughout the film. It’s a performance that helps elevate the film, as well as drive home the impactful message at the film’s core.

For what it’s worth, Ruth Negga’s performance is also well acted, a terrific foil to Thompson and a great indicator of both the parallels and major differences between our two leads. 

The big issue with the film is its pacing. It has some key moments throughout, but there are also a fair number of instances in which an audience can lose interest in what is happening from a narrative standpoint. Also, major progressing points of this narrative creep up on the viewers instead of steadily being built upon throughout the film. 

Still, I would wholeheartedly recommend “Passing” to anyone looking for a new film that will challenge your perspective and provide a great visual treat at the same time.

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