Albert Nobbs (United Kingdom/Ireland, 2011)December 29, 2011
If you take away Albert Nobbs' twist, all that's left is a project that would have been at home on Masterpiece Theater during its heyday. It's the "downstairs" portion of Upstairs, Downstairs - a tale of servants and service during the twilight of the 19th century, before the Great War changed all the rules. A doctor has an affair with a maid. The youngest and prettiest of the staff is impregnated by an itinerant worker. An epidemic of typhoid fever closes the hotel. And Alfred Nobbs goes about his business in a cool, no-nonsense manner, sensibly saving his pennies so he can one day fulfill his dream and open a tobacconist's shop.
What makes Albert Nobbs a little more interesting than something that might have been seen and quickly forgotten on PBS in the 1970s is that the title character is actually a woman, not a man. Played by Glenn Close with surprisingly minimal makeup necessary to affect the gender change, Mr. Nobbs reflects how easy it was during the late 1890s to establish gender via dress and manner. Phrases like "gender ambiguity" were not used during this era. A person was male or female and dressed and acted appropriate to his/her sex. That someone might deviate from this and intentionally impersonate a member of the opposite sex was unthinkable. Yet it happened. In this case, Ms. Nobbs becomes Mr. Nobbs because it allows her/him a wider range of employment opportunities and a higher wage.
Although Mr. Nobbs eventually ineptly woos the vain, self-absorbed Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), this is not approached as a lesbian relationship. Mr. Nobbs is presented as asexual - a strange chameleon with the physical form of a woman, the clothing of a man, and the sexual appetites of neither. His "romance" with Helen is merely a clumsy attempt to grasp at some sort of human connection. He has no friends. He treasures an old photograph of his mother - perhaps the only person in his life to have loved him.
Nobbs is a sad character, but it's difficult to feel for him because he is, as one might say, a "cold fish." One doesn't doubt he has emotions but they are so deeply buried that they rarely surface. He lives for his dream, but one can scarcely take him seriously as the proprietor of a business. The role of a servant is perfect for him because it requires him to act respectfully, show no emotion, and fade into the background - all things Nobbs excels at. Glenn Close is credible as the homely woman disguised as a man. We think of "Nobbs" almost exclusively as a "he." The performance is notable not so much for its cross-dressing and gender switching as for the timidity and reticence that defines Nobbs. It's difficult for an actor to find a character buried so deeply beneath physical and emotional camouflage. It would not be a surprise if Close earned an Oscar nomination for her work here. Some have called it "the performance of a career," which is hyperbole. A quick perusal of Close's filmography reveals numerous more powerful and memorable roles. But it's traditional for actors who play a character of the opposite sex (or who pretend to be of the opposite sex) to receive acknowledgment by the Academy (Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously, Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie).
At times, Albert Nobbs feels like a lost opportunity. It would have been fascinating to explore what it took for Nobbs to establish himself as a man and what sacrifices he may have made along the way. Although the employment inequality between men and women is addressed in passing, it is used merely as a device to explain why Nobbs is masquerading as a man. (There is another character, played by Janet McTeer, in a similar predicament.) These things are beyond the purview of what turns out to be a fairly straightforward story. All of the red meat is just beneath the surface, occasionally poking through but mostly remaining buried.
There are some effective supporting performances. Janet McTeer's Hubert Page is, in many ways, a more interesting cross-dressing character than Nobbs. She explains in detail why she initially pretended to be a man and admits to loving another woman. One senses that a story about her life would have been more compelling than one focused on Nobbs. Brendan Gleeson commands the screen during the few scenes in which he appears as the hotel's resident doctor. Pauline Collins strengthens the connection to Upstairs, Downstairs, in which she had a recurring part. (Here, she's the owner of the hotel.)
From the strength of the period detail - the setting is 1898 Dublin - one might easily assume that director Rodrigo Garcia was a native of the U.K., which he is not. It's a well-mounted production and the Columbian-born filmmaker exhibits no major missteps in representing the complex situation of servants in this era. Paradoxically, Albert Nobbs' greatest strength and weakness relate to the title character, whose passivity and emotional blankness make him an intriguing study in repression but a difficult focal point. Close's performance saves Nobbs and the Upstairs, Downstairs-flavored storyline has its own peculiar appeal.
Albert Nobbs (United Kingdom/Ireland, 2011)
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer, Brendan Gleeson, Pauline Collins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Screenplay: Glenn Close and John Banville, based on a short story by George Moore & Gabriella Prekop
Cinematography: Michael McDonough
Music: Brian Byrne
U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions