Synopsis: Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) struggles to survive in late 19th century Ireland, where women aren't encouraged to be independent. Posing as a man so she can work as a butler in Dublin's most posh hotel, Albert meets a handsome painter and looks to escape the lie she has been living.
Fascinating cross-dressing caper minimises its complexity.
In Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close plays the title role, a professional butler who works in a shabby gentile Dublin hotel in the late 19th century. But in fact, Nobbs is a woman who has grown into middle age pretending to be man.
Stern, but not harsh, mild but always reliable, Nobbs’ persona is an extension of ‘his’ role as something of an essential human service to the rich and condescending; stoic, polite, reserved to the point of invisibility, it’s a personality that invites no investigation or curiosity.
As a consequence no one looks twice at Nobbs, and maybe if they did, her cross-dressing caper would be at an end; the voice is a weird construct that heaves up sounds so constipated Nobbs could be suffering from some form of a congenital disorder of the larynx. Her body as Nobbs moves in a hulking, awkward way; her cheeks are delicate, but to all it seems they do not bespeak anything that is essentially female. For her colleagues and casual on-lookers, Nobbs is plainly, merely ‘odd’ – an oddness he/she cultivates. It does the trick; folks keep their distance.
Once director Rodrigo Garcia establishes the sad mood and the film’s delicate, hard-to-pin-down tone – it’s a melodrama, but it’s also a comedic genre satire – the script starts to pile on the complications. The hotel manager, the blowsy Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) insists that Nobbs share his austere digs with Page, a wide-shouldered, robust, rather jolly bloke, an out of towner commissioned to paint the hotel.
Page turns out to be a woman, too, but unlike Nobbs she, despite her masculine disguise, lives a full, rich life. Page has a steady job, a wife and a sense of irony that transcends her lived experience. Or to put it another way, she is a cross-dressing lesbian turned on by the fact she can put one over a society that degrades and debases women.
Encouraged by Page, Nobbs elects to break from her largely anonymous existence (and desperately unhappy, arid emotional life) to leave the hotel, buy a shop with her considerable savings, and ‘take a wife’.
Nobbs has her eye on one of the hotel servants, the immature Helen (a wonderfully understated and unsentimental portrait of youthful self-interest from Mia Wasikowska), who in turn is getting off with the resident pretty boy Joe (Aaron Johnson). In Garcia’s hands, this courtship becomes a parody of romantic conventions; instead of fearing Nobbs' physical advances, Helen wonders why Nobbs never quite manages to kiss her.
Albert Nobbs then is a rather complex film; it’s not a film about sexual awakening or a plea for homosexual tolerance. Instead, it’s about an innocent; a character that seems to have no instincts of her own, she seems to know nothing of life. Instead of taking advantage of her disguise as a means to absorb the obscure ‘rules’ of gender (the way Page has), Nobbs doesn’t understand anything about her own sex or men either. As played by Close, Nobbs is neutered; she’s got all the sexuality of a six-month-old baby.
Close, who played the title role off Broadway in the early ‘80s, has been trying to make a movie out of George Moore’s novella ever since. It’s a showy, actor’s challenge and Close is exciting in the part and while she’s on-screen we believe her blank innocence; for Close, Nobbs is damaged, broken, fearful and not able to fully function.
On close scrutiny, however, Nobbs as a character makes little sense since she seems not to have any instinctual sexual feelings. (I’m assuming, of course, that there is such a thing as ‘instinct’ in this context, but I guess that’s a notion thick with argument). Still, she’s a ‘lesbian’ here only because it’s a way for her to maintain her masculine masquerade (which is to say she’s not lesbian at all, or heterosexual, either). Therefore, she’s not in ‘the closet’, because she’s not hiding her true self, because there’s no ‘self’ here to hide (we spend the entire movie waiting for her to reach some kind of self-awareness). Her attachment to Helen is emotional, not physical; it’s not a female-to-female attraction, it has no heat or desire, only a sentimental longing to fulfill a certain kind of social norm. It’s tragic because it’s so innocent. At times you want someone to guide her, teach her, but the narrative never provides that kind of life mentor.
This then is something of a fractured fairytale, played out in realist mode. I think it’s possible to read the film’s contrivances as metaphor: is sex nature or ‘learned’? How ‘free’ to express our sexuality can we ever be if we let outside forces determine those things that help define gender?
Albert Nobbs is a film full of irony; it turns out that just about every character in the picture is leading, when it comes to sex, a ‘double-life’ behind a mask of propriety.
This is fascinating stuff, with just a hint of intellectual clout, but Garcia and the film’s screenwriters Gabriella Prekop, John Banville, and Glenn Close (director Istvan Szabo gets a story credit) tend to reduce the film’s stakes to the its romantic subplot. Will Nobbs get the girl? Will Nobbs get found out?
Shot with delicious, chocolate box lighting, and impeccably cast and designed (McTeer is particularly brilliant), the film seems a deliberate send-up of a certain kind of stiff too-cute BBC-style costume melodrama. Still, there’s a sadness in this story that’s overwhelming; it’s a mix of frustration and bewilderment and it’s a bit deflating too since Nobbs finally seems a character whose inner life remains tantalisingly out of reach to all – including us.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
A month of movies with an edge. Saturday nights in April.