They don't often make films like Passing, starring the luminous Ruth Negga, 39, these days.
Beautifully filmed and acted, it's a treat to watch a new movie that trusts you to consider the implications of what you're seeing and hearing, rather than spell it all out for you like a hammer hitting an anvil.
This placid on the surface film conceals an ocean of feeling underneath and it gives Negga her best onscreen role this decade as a striking woman who unsettles just about everyone she meets.
Set mostly in Harlem during its cultural renaissance of the 1920s, Passing introduces us to the so conservative she's ready to explode Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) a young black woman living with her prosperous doctor husband Brian (Andre Holland) in a three-story brownstone with their two school-age sons.
Passing begins with Irene shopping in a midtown department store where her presence as a black woman could expose her to comment were it not for the hat and gloves that artfully conceal her race.
Nevertheless, even here she is reminded of the wider world's hostility when one white woman drops a so-called pickaninny doll and Irene bends down to pick it up for her. The tension that passes between them tells a story in itself.
Later, in the elegant tea room of a nearby hotel, Irene watches the world of white people from under the same race concealing hat until she discovers a blond white woman staring at her with apparent interest.
Could it be that Irene is about to be insulted or denounced? Is a racist incident about to happen here? Before we can decide the blond woman stands up and identifies herself as Irene's old friend from her Chicago days, Clare Kendry (Negga).
Born black, the fair-skinned Clare has been successfully passing herself off as white, reinventing her life, and expanding her career options to the point where she has even married an openly racist white man named John (Alexander Skarsgard).
Irene is astounded by Clare's determination and by the prosperous new life she has made for herself, but she's disgusted by her husband's open racism and Clare's ability to live with it without ever divulging her own secret.
So Passing is a film about the boxes that society places us in, and the ones we place ourselves in, to pass muster. But don't you assume you have it all figured out from just hearing that because this is an uncommonly subtle and sublimely acted film that opens and opens in the memory even after you've viewed it.
One of the facts that Passing quietly coveys is just how dangerous the world – and America – often is if you happen to be born black. There are districts you can't walk through, professions you can't join, schools you can't attend, parks you can't visit, hotels you can't stay in, nightclubs you can't enter, restaurants you can't eat at, and on and on until your world shrinks due to dangers spoken and unspoken.
We don't discuss the violence that this kind of closing down on freedom and opportunity represents and the film knows we may not have much appetite to, so it shows us the daily struggles that families like Irene's face in a series of subtle moments that tell a wider tale.
It turns out that Clare feels trapped and stultified in the white world that she inhabits, missing the company and insights of the black people she grew up around. Uninvited she turns up again at Irene's front door desperate for some company and the sights, sounds and cooking of Harlem.
What follows is a kind of cat and mouse dance between the two women, who desire a bit of what the other has, although they might be loathe to say so. Clare reminds the painfully buttoned-down how to live a little and in turn, Clare admires the life that Irene has built and the principles she lives by (but doesn't share).
Passing explores the many masks that people wear and the dangers that arise once you embrace a public role that you can soon find yourself caught in. Irene and her husband Brian find that they pass each other in the home they have built together, with her social commitments and his work pulling them in different directions.
Then Irene begins to suspect that Clare might have designs on her husband, who she also begins to see in a new light. This change of outlook is complicated by a potential attraction she may have for Clare too, one that looks like it has always been reciprocated.
The relationship between the two women, each secretly desiring what the other has and each possibly secretly desiring each other, is as complex as that sounds and Negga and Thompson are remarkable in their respective roles.
Together they would make a formidable pair, albeit as friends or lovers, but they are separated by convention, circumstances, marriage, racism, and more. Love is only possible when it has a context, the film reminds us. Without a context, it may still flare up but it has nowhere to go.
Clare more and more frequently visits Harlem to be among the kind of people she grew up with, but like Cinderella, the clock is always waiting to strike and her return to her white husband and white world is preordained. She wants the freedom that Harlem represents but the security her passing as white assures.
You can't have it all though, can you? Passing shows us just how circumscribed our lives can become when we are living for others and are tightly bound by their views and prejudices. People like to put us in boxes but the most dangerous ones are the ones we put ourselves in, Passing says.
Given the opportunity to play a role this complex onscreen Negga excels, bringing old Hollywood glamor and terrific line readings to a role so challenging it could never have been filmed in the era in which it set.
She's matched scene by scene by Thompson, who increasingly alters between desire and the desire to rid her life of Clare's presence and influence. She can't choose or even decide which impulse is the main one.
Meanwhile, the pandemic hasn't slowed Negga's progress at all. The Irish Ethiopian actress, who grew up in Limerick and later studied at the Samuel Beckett Center at Trinity College, starred as Hamlet in an acclaimed run just before the start of the pandemic at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn and will return to Broadway opposite Daniel Craig in Macbeth beginning in March 2022.
Passing is that rare film that trusts us to understand its deep meditations on race, sex, class, wealth, poverty, male and female. Director Rebecca Hall turns on her camera and lets the audience decide what the message of each scene is, a rare choice these days.
The film asks some hard questions and avoids giving us any simple answers, trusting us to understand the price of Irene's ultimate decision and Clare's fate.
Passing will be viewable from November 12 on Netflix.