‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen, from Novella to Screen

Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929), a novella about a Black woman passing as white in an acutely discriminatory society, setting up the stage for some suspenseful and intense storytelling.

Irene Redfield is a wife and mother of two sons, maintaining an orderly home in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor, herself well connected and tightly engaged in the social life of her community. While visiting Chicago one time, she encounters an old school friend, Clare Kendry, whom she doesn’t recognize at first. It’s Clare who has spotted Irene in the rooftop restaurant and comes over to identify herself. That fateful reunion changes Irene’s life.

Twelve years have passed since Irene last saw Clare from school. Now standing in front of her is “an attractive-looking woman… with dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.” (16)

That these two Black women can pass for whites and enter the Drayton Hotel’s rooftop restaurant is due to their light skin colour. This fact in itself implies the fluidity of racial definitions. Clare and Irene are biracial, and that term doesn’t even necessarily refer to half and half. Clare’s father is himself the son of a white father and a black mother. Her fair skin doesn’t betray her racial composition.

The character foil between Irene and Clare forms the crux and conflict in the story. Clare is bold and adventurous, a risk taker who is bound by no loyalty save for her own gratification. By marrying a white husband who is a banker, Jack Bellew, she has been living a privileged, white woman’s life. Curiously, she asks Irene “haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?”

Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?” And so disdainful was her voice and manner that Clare’s face flushed and her eyes glinted. Irene hastened to add: “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.” (29)

To Irene, what Clare has done is dangerous and disloyal to her race. Well, she passes too sometimes but only when it’s necessary, like getting into Drayton’s rooftop restaurant to escape from the fainting spell due to the sweltering heat. But to Clare, it’s her life. She tells Irene, “all things considered… it’s even worth the price.” That is, despite the fact that she is living with a man who hates Blacks but is unaware of her racial heritage.

The search for identity is not so much the issue Clare is struggling with but loneliness. She has not been discovered for twelve years and now reuniting with Irene, she wants to re-connect with the people in her past life. Alluring and assertive, Clare gradually moves into Irene’s familial and social life.

Larsen’s 111 page novella is more than just about race. It is an intricately layered story that touches on multiple issues. While race is the most obvious one, more for Irene, but for Clare passing is for personal gain and socio-economic benefits, and the breakout of social boundaries. The book is also about female friendship, and the ambivalence that involves. Further, unexpected for all of them, as Clare enters Irene’s home, she begins to unhinge the equilibrium in relationships. She charms everyone, from the help to the two boys, and the most abhorrent suspicion Irene harbours, her husband Brian as well. Herein lies the turning point in the story.

Larsen tells her story with spare and concise narratives, her revealing of her character’s thoughts is precise and clear, that is, until we reach the ending. Like a suspense writer, Larsen has dropped hints as to where she’s leading the reader towards the end. And yet, it is as open-ended as how a reader is prepared to see. Herein lies Larsen’s ingenuity.

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Tessa Thompson as Irene (L) and Ruth Negga as Clare in Passing, film adaptation written and directed by Rebecca Hall

The film adaptation (2021) is the directorial debut of British actor Rebecca Hall who also wrote the screenplay. It is a project that she had attempted to launch for some years. The book aligns with a family history as her maternal grandfather was a Black man who had passed as white for most of his life in Detroit, Michigan.

What Larsen has written, Hall has materialized on screen with parallel, meticulous mastery. That the film is shot in black and white is a brilliant idea, for viewers can see quite readily, in between the black and the white is a spectrum of greys, clearly showing Larsen’s concept of the fluidity of socially-constructed racial definitions. The 4:3 Academy ratio works to lead us into a glimpse of a specific past where Clare could well fit the image of a flapper in 1920’s NYC.

Hall has simplified the locations and mainly focused on Harlem. She has effectively selected the essential passages and lines and transposed them on screen. Out of Larsen’s spare novella the writer-director has created a thought provoking visual narrative with stylish aesthetics and implications that still resonate in our times.

I’ve always been intrigued by the image on the Penguin edition of the book cover. At the beginning of the film, Hall shows us the significance of it. Irene wears a translucent hat that’s half covering her face, an aid to shield her features as she goes shopping in Manhattan, just in case, and in the hotel room where she meets Clare’s racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), a necessary means of defence.

The interplay between Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare is immaculate and well-directed, nuances revealed in the slightest changes in facial expressions and gestures. The reunion of old friends is not all celebratory, an ambivalence is clearly conveyed by Irene. Andr´é Holland (Moonlight, 2016; Selma, 2014) plays Brian, loving husband and father who is acutely aware of the racial atrocities in the country. Like Clare, he wants to breakout and be free.

Another major asset is cinematography. Edu Grau (Suffragette, 2015; A Single Man, 2009) has crafted a stylish work with depth. His camera is spot-on when it’s needed to capture the expressions of the characters, especially between the two women as often their faces are the visual dialogues when none is spoken. And throughout the film, the jazz motif sets the mood that weaves through scenes.

What’s explicitly written in a book can only be shown with images on screen. Hall is effective in adding sequences that are illustrative in revealing Irene’s fears as she sees Brian and Clare becoming closer. And with the visual comes the sound. In the tea party at their home to honor the writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), Irene’s heavy breathing we hear as the camera follows her around the house lets us feel her restrained anger and unsettling spirit. The breaking of the tea pot and the conversations she has with Hugh who helps her pick up the pieces is most telling. These are apt additions as a gradual revealing leading to the end.

Like Larsen’s novella, the ending is open to interpretation. However, what Hall implies seems to be different from the author’s. Read the novella, watch the film. This is an intriguing pairing of two exceptional storytelling in both art forms.

Passing is a nominee of the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. It has been screening in the festival circuit and is a new release on Netflix starting November 10.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Passing by Nella Larsen, Penguin Books, NY., 2018, With an insightful Introduction and Suggestions for Further Reading by Emily Bernard, 128 pages. (Story from p. 10-120)

Novellas in November, click here and here to see what others are reading.

‘The Chair’ is a dramedy worthy of a second season: A Review of the new Netflix series

From Dr. Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy to Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, chair of Pembroke University’s English Department, Sandra Oh has proven to be an effective voice for inclusion in the entertainment industry.

Sandra Oh in The Chair, a new Netflix series

The Chair is a notable addition to Netflix’s original series, newly released in August 20, 2021. The six, 30 min. episodes pack subject matters that are relevant in academia and society today. So, if you feel it has not fully delved into such issues, I hope a second season would allow it to elaborate.

The most obvious one is the academic chair, the symbol of authority in academia. Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, aptly played by Sandra Oh in an astute mix of comedic and realistic fervour, is the first Asian American and woman of colour to chair the English Department of Pembroke University, a second tier liberal arts college striving to remain relevant. Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim’s obstacles are duly multiplied just because of who she is, a woman English professor of Korean ancestry.

When talking with Yaz (Nana Mensah), a young, black woman faculty whom Ji-Yoon wants to appoint as distinguished lecturer, Ji-Yoon says, “when I first started, it was like ‘why some Asian lady teaching Emily Dickinson?'”

Ji-Yoon’s troubles are manifold. Enrolment in the English Department has dropped more than 30%, budget has been chopped, and many of the 87% white male faculty have long passed the borderline of retirement. Ji-Yoon’s department is striving to recover its raison d’être. Her own daughter Ju Ju asks her, “Why are you a doctor? You never help anybody.” A question must have lodged in many a minds.

As for Ju Ju, a role superbly played by Everly Carganilla, she’s a heart-breaker. Ji-Yoon faces single-parenthood with added difficulties as Ju Ju is an adopted daughter of Hispanic heritage. Mother-daughter bond doesn’t come easily, especially with an intelligent and challenging child. Ji-Yoon has no other childminding support other than her reluctant, Korean father. The traditional Korean family event (E5) where a baby chooses her future career is interesting and adds spice to the academic scenes.

Characters are realistic, albeit in a comedy it’s expected to see overly dramatized ones like Bill (Jay Duplass), too stoned or drunk to remember he has a class to teach. His excuse, he’s still recovering from the loss of his wife, and a daughter who has just gone away for college and has no intention to return. The class he teaches, Death and Modernism, draws a full capacity all because of his popularity… but not for long.

As a comedy, the writing isn’t your LOL funny type. The humour, especially on the ripe old professors, tends towards cliché; nevertheless, the writing is interesting, especially when they try to include literary allusions into the dialogues. Knowing T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock just might enhance one’s enjoyment.

Overall, a subject matter that’s long due and a new series that deserves many more seasons to come.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

‘The Dig’ is a Visual Meditation on Time and Life

Don’t judge a movie by its title. The seemingly uninspiring title packs a lot of story and ideas. Based on a true event and the novel of the same name by John Preston, the dig refers to the historic excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship and the treasures inside its burial chamber, the medieval grave of possibly a warrior king dating back to 600’s AD. The archaeological event took place at the start of WWII in 1939 on Edith Pretty’s Sutton Hoo property in Suffolk, England. For a historical reference point, just seventeen years earlier, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Director Simon Stone has chosen to turn a spectacular archeological find into a lyrical, visual narrative that is elegiac and ponderous in tone. His focus isn’t so much on the unearthed treasures but the process of the dig, and the human stories adhere to it. A valuable asset Stone holds in his helm is an excellent cast.

Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, the widow of a Colonel whom she still mourns at his grave while raising their young son Robert (Archie Barnes). As an amateur archeology enthusiast, she has a feeling the mounds on her grounds have something significant buried. Hiring a local excavator, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), she watches her hunch realized.

However, Edith’s deteriorating heart condition is a constant reminder of her own mortality, a tug at her soul, brewing a deep concern for her son Robert after she’s gone. Mulligan acts not just with her facial expressions; her whole body speaks to the fragility of life. While treasures are unearthed, her fears and sentiments are buried deep within.

To interplay with Mulligan’s delicate demeanor, Fiennes delivers an understated performance with the unglamorous character Basil Brown. A country excavator, stooped in posture, quiet yet determined, apparently knowing much more than he shows. It is gratifying to see the two of them interact in a naturalistic way, their expressions equally sensitive and nuanced.

Reading about Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tuktankamun, Edith is apprehensive about finding human remains in the dig, as that’s like disinterring the dead. Brown answers with his view of the philosophy of the discipline: “… that’s life what’s revealed. And that’s why we dig.” And, as his wife May (Monica Dolan) points out, it’s about continuity for the next generations, so they know where they come from.

The ‘untrained’ Brown––with no academic credentials but learned the skill from his father passed down from his grandfather––has to yield to the authority of the famous archaeologist from the British Museum, Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Phillips takes over the dig as soon as he arrives on the site with his team of specialists.

Among them are the archaeologist couple Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James). Their incompatibility is obvious; Stuart is happier with fellow team member John Brailsford (Eamon Farren) than with his wife. Later, the arrival of Edith’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn, Mr. Knightley of Emma, 2020) further alters the relational dynamics. While at the dig, Rory is called up by the RAF, a worrisome commission as war with Germany breaks out.

There’s interesting play with sound, or the lack of. For some short moments in certain scenes, there’s just silence. All sound and music halt. Most other times, the score is meditative, quiet piano playing. There are often juxtapositions of scenes linked by voice-overs, offering a fresh way of storytelling. This is effective not just to show what’s happening at different places or time, but that the dialogues can be relevant for different people in other situations as well.

Cinematographer Mike Eley captures on screen some exquisite sights of the English open country, wide shots shrouded with a hazy light, sometimes teal, sometimes golden. Terence Davies’s Sunset Song comes to mind, albeit The Dig is a much quieter film.

Young Robert’s fantasy with the cosmos and his imaginary tales cannot be brushed away as just spice to animate the mood. Kudos to Moira Buffini’s screenplay, the film wraps up with mother and son laying close together in the dug-up ship under a starry sky at night, as Robert tells his mother and Brown observing nearby, his woven tale of the ship taking the queen home to the stars to meet the king, leaving everyone behind, a poignant metaphor and a fable-like send off. Mulligan and Barnes are treasures here. That aerial shot is magical.

The Dig begins streaming January 29, 2021 on Netflix. I’ve watched it twice so far, once isn’t enough to capture all that need to be noted to appreciate.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

‘Pieces of a Woman’ Review

For the first 30 minutes before the title comes out on screen, viewers follow almost in real time a home birth gone awry. They witness the intense moments of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) giving birth, the contractions, the unbearable pain, the difficult labor, the birth, the joy, and then the tragedy. That first section is absorbing and the shaky handheld camera increases the intensity.

The movie is inspired by screenwriter Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó’s real-life experience of losing a baby during pregnancy. In Pieces of a Woman, the duo depict not just the court of legal proceedings, but the court of public opinion, and within the family, generational and relational adversary when faced with the loss of a baby.

Martha and her partner Sean (Shia Labeouf) maintains a precarious relationship to start. She dresses chicly, works in a modern tower and has her own office; he works in construction outdoor building a bridge. It’s not so much their jobs but the incompatible personalities between them. Martha is soft spoken and reflective; Sean, sporting a bushy beard, is boorish (his own word, albeit sarcastically) and physically abusive. The dashed hope of a child tears apart an already fragile relationship.

Kirby doesn’t let her previous role as Princess Margaret in The Crown S1 & 2 define her. Here as Martha, she is everywoman expecting her first baby, mixing hope with trepidation. Reticent in her demeanour, after the death of her newborn, she withdraws deeper into her own self, grieving in her own way, picking up the pieces of what’s left of a woman. She is the main attraction of the movie.

Labeouf’s psyche is a mixed bag too, but with different elements. His hopeful excitement of imminent fatherhood is obvious, but is it another aspect of domination? Considering Labeouf’s real-life legal charges against him of domestic violence and sexual battery, it’s eery to watch him befitting the role of a needy abuser.

It is the veteran actor Ellen Burstyn’s performance as the overbearing mother of Martha’s that bring out the two main characters. Burstyn plays Elizabeth, domineering and combative. The beginning scene sets the tone as she buys a minivan for Martha and Sean. Not a good thing to let your mother-in-law buy you a new car, or the mother of your girlfriend, same thing. Elizabeth despises Sean and belittles her own daughter. So much for the symbol of the big gift.

Elizabeth’s reaction to the tragic home birth is to push Martha to sue the midwife Eva (Molly Parker) for negligence. In her view, that’s the way to get justice and compensation. While the legal trial leads to an unexpected resolution at the end, the climax of the movie comes a little earlier, in Elizabeth’s classy, tastefully decorated home. It highlights the court of domestic interactions, setting up a scene reminiscence of August: Osage County (2013). Elizabeth’s survival and combative instinct challenges Martha’s reticence. This is one of the two best scenes of the whole movie. The other during the court recess of the trial, but I won’t elaborate or it will be a spoiler.

Here in Elizabeth’s home where the family has gathered, the camera follows Martha in a long take as she moves agitatedly around the living and dining room, a woman reacting to pieces of casual conversations aiming at making the mood light, but which soon crescendos into a full blown mother-daughter confrontation.

Well acted and absorbing. A takeaway could be that, experience is subjective and personal; what one generation has gone through and even lessons learned can best be shared and hopefully inspire but can’t be transferred or expected to elicit the same results in the next generation. Amidst the tension, Elizabeth relays her wartime moment of resilience when as a young child, how a doctor held her weak body up by her feet and said, “if she tries to lift her head, then there’s hope.” And, she did. Now that she’s an ageing mother, a new lesson to learn might be to realize that such an experience cannot be imposed on her daughter, for Martha has her own way to deal with grief and ‘lift her head’, as shown at the conclusion of the trial.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Pieces of a Woman won the Arca Cinema Giovani Award and Vanessa Kirby Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival 2020. Now streaming on Netflix.

New ‘Rebecca’: First Impressions

Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Cr. Kerry Brown/Netflix

‘First Impressions’ sounds like a disclaimer, implying that I could change my mind upon second or further viewing. However, first impressions last; hence, I just might not watch the Netflix movie again. If I do, it would be just the first part, which is the more enticing.

Nobody likes to be compared to, especially to something more definitive, but Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel inevitably creeps into my mind. It’s all subliminal. Ben Wheatley, the versatile English director of some quirky, arthouse works like the surreal adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (2015), could transpose a book onto the screen in whatever way he chooses. But I’m just baffled by his taking up this traditional du Maurier classic.

First off, the colour palette in the first act is aesthetically pleasing. The pacing moves along well and camera agile and inviting. The Gatsby-esque setting and set design give it a free-wheeling, romantic mood, the golden overtone exuding a reminiscing perspective which is apt as the novel is a remembrance of things past.

Our protagonist, a naive, young assistant (Lily James) to rich and snobbish Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) in a Monte Carlo hotel, meets the aristocratic, widowed master of Manderley, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who falls for her in no time. An instant marriage and our protagonist is zoomed back to the iconic estate as its new mistress, an irreplaceable position owned by her predecessor Rebecca, who drowned in a boating accident a year ago.

This is where things begin to unravel, for both the new Mrs. de Winter and the storytelling. Lily James is ubiquitous ever since her breakout role as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. Her performance is effective in Cinderella, Mamma Mia!, Darkest Hour, just to name a few. For some uncanny reasons, she doesn’t fit in that well as the new Mrs. de Winter. Her performance lacks the power to elicit empathy or to engage. I doubt this is a matter of capability. A shortfall in directing, or maybe not? She’s unsure of her role––a parallel with the new Mrs. de Winter––is this some kind of intended effect in method acting?

Another thing I noticed. Here’s a real disclaimer. I’m definitely not into fashion. But a look at Mrs. de Winter’s costume, I find it odd that she wears pants all the time, except in the very short-lived scene at the ball when she is ordered back up to her room to change by an infuriated Maxim after appearing in Rebecca’s dress. Anyway, her attire looks like the casual wear of the 1960’s or even 70’s, a bit incompatible with a character in this movie setting. I remember how avant garde it was to wear pants in that era as Lady Sybil and Lady Mary demonstrated the new, stylish fashion. Yes, a Downton revelation.

Hammer as Maxim seldom appears in Manderley and doesn’t leave much of an impression, maybe except for his mustard-colour suit. But it is Kristin Scott Thomas that rescues the acting front as the eerily stern and mysterious Mrs. Danvers. Why, of course, with her calibre, she can deliver even without any strong directing. She articulates superbly, her stage presence poised, her expressions nuanced. In this new adaptation that borders on an identity disorder, Scott Thomas’ performance is the one good thing that offers clarity.

The Manderley mystique relies on sound and special effects to elicit outcomes akin to the horror genre. I miss Hitchcock’s subtlety and suspense, and his calmly drawing out the essence of his characters. Without further comparing, judging on its own, this new Rebecca is choppy in its editing, neurotic in mood, and its altered ending leaves viewers with an unresolved moral issue.

[Hereafter Spoiler Warning] While du Maurier did not spell out that the new Mr. and Mrs. de Winter live happily ever after, Wheatley’s Rebecca declares such a happy ending explicitly. Even Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) poses the ethical problem at the end of the movie, but here there’s no dilemma. This new Rebecca wraps up like a version of “How to Get Away with Murder,” and offers a dubious way to finding love.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix