In review: 'Passing,' 'Belfast,' 'Red Notice'
Netflix giveth and taketh away this week with Rebecca Hall's subtle B&W racial drama and a $200 million waste of time. And Kenneth Branagh would like his Oscar, please.
Dir. Rebecca Hall
In the opening minutes of Passing, a subtly unnerving adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Irene (Tessa Thompson), a Black woman in Prohibition-era New York, goes shopping on a sweltering day in the tonier shops of the city, where all of the women around her are white. With a hat firmly tucked down her forehead, the lighter-skinned Irene could “pass” as white, but doing so makes her immensely uncomfortable, even though none of the strangers around her question her identity in the least. When she ducks into a swanky hotel tea room to escape the heat, she scans the other tables with a mix of nervousness and envy, particularly when her eyes land on a couple of white newlyweds joyfully displaying their affection. Any such openness on her part is hard to fathom.
Written and directed by the fine actress Rebecca Hall, who’s making her debut behind the camera, Passing is a tone piece that seeks to bottle the free-floating dread that hovers around its characters every waking hour. Irene feels it more intensely in this sequence, when she’s actively trying to pass, but dread’s not something she can easily shake at home, either, even though she lives with a Black doctor in a Harlem brownstone where she doesn’t have to disguise herself. Safety is important to her—the word “safe” is uttered as many times here as it is in Marathon Man—but even in Harlem that’s not achievable for Irene and her family. As a Black family in a segregated country, their lives are measured by degrees of peril, never by the security of its absence.
As Irene continues to scan around that tea room, she’s startled to lock eyes with Clare (Ruth Negga), a childhood friend who’s visiting from Chicago—and, she’s soon to learn, intends to stay full time. What’s particularly surprising about seeing Clare again is the way she looks, appearing to have lighter skin than Irene, sculpted blonde hair, and an air of wealth. The two move up to Clare’s suite so they can speak more frankly, and Irene learns that her friend has been passing as white and that her rich husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), hasn’t learned her secret. When John appears in the room, he doesn’t pick up on Irene’s Blackness, either, and jokes about the virulently racist nickname he’s given Clare as a term of endearment. Irene cannot excuse herself fast enough.
When the action shifts to Irene’s home life, she has what appears to be an ideal domestic situation, with a spacious brownstone, an attentive and successful husband (André Holland), two young sons, and a housekeeper. She works on events for Negro Welfare League, and counts among her acquaintances the esteemed white writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), who’s a patron and important confidante. Irene doesn’t need Clare back in her life, but Clare turns up on her doorstep anyway, which quietly destabilizes her marriage and her sense of self, and makes her feel like their bubble of contentment might pop—if they could be said to be contented at all.
Passing is exactly the type of literary material that isn’t supposed to work as a movie—minimal story, maximal interiority. Add to that the stripped-down, no-frills B&W photography, boxed in further by a 1:33-1 aspect ratio, and the film can seem suffocatingly austere, even inert, in its unwillingness to move forward at a conventional beat. But Hall’s approach has a cumulative power, tied closely to her faith that the actors can suggest an emotional turbulence that they’re often not at liberty to express out loud. As Clare, Negga projects a confidence that’s really a facade for the deep loneliness and terror of being stuck in a marriage that’s dancing on a razor’s edge. Thompson’s Irene, by contrast, is accepted fully as herself within her home, but the world at large has other ideas, and the anxiety chips away at her psyche.
There’s a tidiness to Passing that nags on occasion, like Hall is neatly arranging the pieces of an argument that she’s trying to make, rather than letting the messiness of real life intervene. A line like “We’re all of us passing for something or other” leaves the audience with too little to interpret about the film. But just as Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence described turn-of-the-century, upper-crust New York as a world balanced so precariously “its harmony could be shattered by a whisper,” so too does Hall’s vision of ‘20s Harlem feel less stable than the relatively privileged status of its Black characters might suggest. The difference between those two worlds, however, is life or death.
Passing is available on Netflix.
Dir. Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, a semi-autobiographical film about growing up in the capital of Northern Ireland in the late ’60s, begins at the moment before everything changes: the afternoon the unrest that swept across the country in August 1969 reached the neighborhood Branagh and his family called home. For nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), it’s just another fine day wandering the friendly streets with a shield fashioned from a garbage can lid. Then a gang of Loyalist ruffians, Protestants intent on purging the neighborhood of Catholic residents and Catholic-owned businesses, turn those streets into a war zone, forcing Buddy’s Ma (Caitríona Balfe), to turn his pretend shield into the real thing as she whisks him to safety. Playtime is over.
Though Protestants themselves, Buddy’s family has no interest in pushing out their Catholic neighbors. They just want things to go back to the way they were before. The barricades at the end of the block where they’re routinely questioned—sometimes by police, sometimes by less official figures—serve as a reminder of the new normal, but they mostly go about living like they used to. Buddy and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) walk to school. Ma keeps house and socializes with the neighbor while waiting for Pa (Jamie Dornan) to come home from his job in England. Buddy’s grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench) slip him coins under the table and offer counsel about what girls like. There are movies to watch and streets to gambol through. His childhood’s wonderful, really, or would be if the Troubles didn’t linger in the background and pamphlets about the wonders of moving to Australia or Canada didn’t keep showing up, giving Buddy’s parents something to fight about beyond their debts.
A memory play shot in lovely black and white by regular Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos and soundtracked by classic Van Morrison songs (and a new one for the Oscars to notice), Belfast offers a warmhearted look back at a childhood spent carving out good times within the bad times. It’s filled with sharply realized moments of tenderness and play while still depicting the way unrest and hatred can seep into everyday life. A relative a little older than Buddy fills his head with strategies for evading the dangers of the dread Catholics while talking vaguely of joining a “gang.” An insistent, menacing keeps showing up at the house reminding Pa he needs to choose a side or suffer the consequences. Buddy can try to pretend nothing has changed, but only for so long.
Belfast is filled with striking shots and affecting performances from Dench and Hinds and Dornan and Balfe, all of whom summon up wonderful chemistry as couples at different stages of marriage. And yet it also plays like something of a missed opportunity. Maybe that’s because of its resemblance to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which goes deeper than the decision to shoot a memorable moment in an unsettled past in monochrome. But, unlike Cuarón, Branagh, also the screenwriter, can’t always tell the difference between sentiment and reflectiveness, or between memory and insight, particularly toward the end, as the film gives Pa moments of unvarnished heroism and a speech that baldly states the film's themes. It’s a nice movie, never anything less, but only occasionally anything more. —Keith Phipps
Belfast is now in theaters.
Dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber
Red Notice is not a movie. It is a $200 million existential crisis in light.
There’s no evidence that anyone involved in the film cared about making it at any point. Not its writer-director, Rawson Marshall Thurber, who has conceived of a ripoff of a ripoff of a ripoff of Raiders of the Lost Ark, like National Treasure without the soul. Not Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot, three of the biggest and most boring stars in Hollywood, whose careers boast a grand total of one unexpected performance between them. (That would be Reynolds in Mississippi Grind, though even there he’s no Ben Mendelsohn.) And certainly not Netflix, which would happily just light the money on fire instead if it meant gaining an edge in the streaming wars.
So what does a movie no one cares about look like, other than a bunch of people taking pictures of their checks on a banking app? Like a globetrotting heist thriller about three characters—an FBI profiler (Johnson) and two master thieves (Reynolds and Gadot)—whose allegiances are fuzzy because they have no defining traits, other than being played by Johnson (macho, fun-loving), Reynolds (smug wisecracker), and Gadot (a sentient being). They’re all after one of the three missing, precious golden eggs given to Cleopatra as a gift from Antony, double-crossing each other via a series of expensive-looking but non-enthralling action-comedy sequences.
At one point, when they’re close to the treasure and wondering where to find it, Reynolds says, “Just look for the box that says ‘MacGuffin.’” Fuck off, Red Notice.
Red Notice will be available Friday on Netflix.
One stray thought about BELFAST: I like that it was short. That’s not a knock. I enjoyed the movie. But movies in general seem to have forgotten that it’s OK to clock in under 100 minutes and it’s kind of unheard of in a movie with this subject in 2021.
"Fuck off, Red Notice". Excellent, all I needed to know.