Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA/United Kingdom/Canada, 2021. AUM Group, Film4, Flat Five Productions, Gamechanger Films, Hungry Bull Productions, Picture Films, Significant Productions, Sweet Tomato Films, TGCK Partners, XRM Media. Screenplay by Rebecca Hall, based on the novel by Nella Larsen. Cinematography by Eduard Grau. Produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi, Rebecca Hall, Margot Hand, Forest Whitaker. Music by Devonté Hynes. Production Design by Nora Mendis. Costume Design by Marci Rodgers. Film Editing by Sabine Hoffman.
Irene (Tessa Thompson) is outside her usual Harlem neighbourhood on a shopping errand and, taking advantage of her fair-skinned appearance and a conveniently low-riding hat, passes as white at the store she shops at, and not for the first time. She stops into a hotel bar for a beverage under the same pretence, and is at first nervous about being caught out when a strange woman walks towards her to speak to her before realizing that she is an old friend from her Chicago days. Clare (a riveting Ruth Negga) is also a light-skinned woman passing as white though not for the odd day out, she’s living her life in disguise with her white husband John (Alexander Skarsgard, as always sounding like he’s reading phonetics off cue cards) who does not know the truth about her. The two women catch up in Clare’s hotel room before John returns and makes racist remarks that Clare listens to without breaking a bead of sweat, laughing at his comments about her increasingly dark appearance and not flinching when he reassures Irene that his wife loathes African Americans as much as he does.
When John goes away on business and frees up a great deal of his wife’s time, Clare pursues a renewed friendship with Irene which the latter agrees to, bringing Clare into her home where her interactions with Irene’s husband Brian (André Holland) cause a great deal of tension in the hostess. The two women have opposite attitudes to the manner in which they interact with white society, Irene thinks Clare’s selling herself out in order to enjoy the wealth and standing that her husband can provide her isn’t worth the price she pays for it, but getting up close to her mysterious friend only creates more insecurity about her own accomplishments: being a doctor’s wife who is using her own privilege to help usher in the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s felt like it was so much more before her more glamorous friend was around to impress her husband and children, and Irene’s relationship with her husband begins to show hairline fractures of doubt thanks to her fears that Clare’s dazzle is preferable to the integrity that she has always prided herself in.
Actress Rebecca Hall makes an assured feature film debut with this adaptation of Nella Larson’s 1929 novel of the same name, one those themes, still relevant today, are connected to her own biography (through her biracial mother, whose life and career echoes elements of this story). Using high contrast cinematography reminiscent of the meta-cinema look of Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss, Hall risks overdoing her visual metaphors with the way she codes the illumination in her shots, when the women occupy white spaces the rooms are flush with bright clear light, then plunged into warm, rich shadows when at home or a Harlem club. The threat of one world and comfort of the other is all in the actresses’ faces and need not have been telegraphed with such bland instruction, but there is such a stunning exactitude to the way each image is shot that the film never feels overstated. Quite the opposite, actually, as the precision with which her actors mine the depths of their characters’ inner lives ensures that nothing ever panders to easy interpretations. Irene and Clare connect and overlap with each other in fascinating ways in this story, the contrast between the actresses’ styles (Thompson is elegant and softly placed, Negga is bright and anxious) making their push and pull more exciting as each both envies and admires the other. Their work together is a magnificent feat of character tension that is brought out with great strength by interactions that feel hauntingly unfettered by excess, almost as if each scene is performed on the edge of a knife.
Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Negga)
Screen Actors Guild Award Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Negga)