Director : Rodrigo García
Screenplay : Glenn Close, Gabriella Prekop, and John Banville (based on a short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs” by George Moore)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Glenn Close (Nobbs), Mia Wasikowska (Helen), Aaron Johnson (Joe), Brendan Gleeson (Holloran), Janet McTeer (Hubert), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Viscount Yarrell), Pauline Collins (Mrs. Baker), Mark Williams (Sean), Bronagh Gallagher (Cathleen), Brenda Fricker (Polly)
Albert Nobbs is a sad little movie about a sad little man. The title character (Glenn Close) lives and works as a butler in an upper class hotel in late-19th-century Dublin. Diminutive in both stature and interpersonal polish, Albert is nevertheless a steadfast and entirely reliable servant who Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), the hotel’s chatty and outgoing proprietress, can always count on to be punctual, efficient, and well-mannered. Albert is anything but handsome (he is regularly referred to as “odd” in both his looks and his demeanor), and he keeps largely to himself, at times seeming to blend into the walls as if he were little more than another piece of well-maintained furniture. This is in stark contrast to many of the other hotel employees, including Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a pretty, class-aspirant maid, and Joe (Aaron Johnson), a good-looking new hire who sets his sights on her.
Albert, alas, is hiding an enormous secret, which is that he is not a man at all, but rather a woman who has adopted the guise of a man in order to secure work in a society that offers few employment options of any real means to women. Albert’s background is kept deliberately vague; at one point a character who knows Albert’s secret asks him point blank what his name was before he changed his identity, and he can’t say, perhaps because he doesn’t want to or perhaps because he has become so invested in his male identity for so long that he genuinely can’t remember. Regardless of the details, Albert’s past is exactly that—the past—and, despite his reclusive, introverted ways, he is deeply invested in his future.
For years Albert has been saving up his wages and tips, fastidiously hiding them away beneath the floorboards of his room and taking careful notes of every shilling. His plan is to save up enough money to start his own business, a tobacco store that he imagines as a warm, generous place that contrasts sharply with his current life of servitude and emotional isolation. The fact that Albert’s entrepreneurial dreams seem to deal more with human connection than profit suggests that there is a great deal at work beneath his generally staid visage, and one of the beauties of Close’s tightly controlled performance is not her gender drag show, but rather the way she conveys the mix of desire, doubt, and fear beneath Albert’s surface (she is intimately familiar with the role, having won an Obie in 1982 for playing it in Simone Benmussa’s off-Broadway stageplay, which was also adapted from George Moore’s 1927 short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs”).
Albert’s dreams are emboldened when he meets Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter hired by Mrs. Baker to update the hotel. Mrs. Baker assigns Hubert to stay in Albert’s room, which terrifies him since it means his secret will be that much more difficult to hide. As it turns out, Hubert is also a woman donning a man’s guise in order to find work, and his success both financially and socially (he is happily married to a woman named Cathleen, played by Bronagh Gallagher) inspires Albert all the more. Unfortunately, it also sets in his mind the idea of domesticity, which he attempts to engage via a relationship with Helen. Helen, who is sexually and emotionally involved with Joe, has no interest in sad little Albert, but she “walks out” with him anyway because Joe suspects that Albert has money and wants to use Helen to get it in order to finance their dream-escape to America.
Thus, Helen is drafted into the morally corrupt enterprise of stringing Albert along, while Albert is pathetically trapped into the conviction that he would make a good husband for her. Their scenes together are heartbreaking because we know that they are doomed to failure. Albert’s fundamental decency is no match for the cruel world in which he’s trying to survive (he can only make it when he stays at the margins), and while Helen is certainly abetting that cruelty by lying to Albert about her intentions, although Albert’s ruse forces us to question the fundamental morality of his own enterprise. After all, he is essentially trying to trick Helen into marrying him, knowing full well that his eventual revelation that he is not, physically speaking, a man is bound to cause problems. The ambiguity surrounding his sexuality makes it all the more perplexing—Is he a lesbian? Is he simply uninterested in sex and only in companionship?
Director Rodrigo García, who has worked in both television and feature films, has a nice feel for the humanity of the story (which was scripted by Close, Gabriella Prekop, and John Banville), and he works on our heartstrings with a careful subtlety. He and cinematographer Michael McDonough (who did such outstanding work on Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone) give the film a sense of warm, lived-in textures that transcend period trappings, and their focus on the details of everyday life in the hotel draws us in. Albert Nobbs is a film in which everything—including life and death—is at stake, but it works largely because it stays so resolutely focused on the issue of one’s identity. We could argue all day about what Albert is in terms of gender, but the point is really who. He may be physically a woman socially disguised as a man, but the film’s heart lies in his constant search for a place in the world, one that happens to treat men much better than it treats women. While most of us can’t identify with having to change our gender to get by, we can all feel the familiar tug of Albert’s fundamental desire, which is nothing more than to fit in and be loved.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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