Directed by: Rodrigo García
Written by: Glenn Close, Jon Banville and Gabriella Prekop (screenplay), George Moore (short story) Starring: Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson
Albert Nobbs is a 10-year passion project for Glenn Close. Not only does she star in the title role, but she co-wrote the screenplay and penned the lyrics for the end credits song “Lay Your Head Down.” It is the story of a woman in Ireland who disguises herself as a man to work as a butler in a swank hotel for the upper class. At least that is the story on the surface of it all.
The movie progresses Albert’s character in surprising ways, but in the end it simply comes to the conclusion that the answer is ultimately out of reach. Close plays Albert with a deepened voice that shields a vulnerable core. When her true identity is discovered by the hotel’s hired painter Hubert (Janet McTeer) when they bunk together, Albert nearly unravels. All the careful planning- the money saved beneath floorboards, the meticulously designed appearance, the perfect job performance- seems like it will collapse in the melodramatic fashion that is typical of Oscar-nominated performances.
It doesn’t, though, at least not at that moment. As it turns out rather conveniently, Hubert is also disguised as a man, though for different reasons. Hubert has taken a wife, which she claims is a facade but actually appears to be a hidden lesbian relationship. Albert and Hubert share the common thread of male abuse, and though gender identity is obviously a subject of the movie, sexuality remains largely hidden. When Albert decides to take a wife of her own to conceal her cover, it seems like there is more to it than just that.
That prospect is a maid named Helen, played by Mia Wasikowska as a docile innocent. Like all the other characters, though, she evolves into something more, though it’s mostly because of her relationship with the manipulative maintenance worker Joe (Aaron Johnson). Albert begins awkwardly courting Helen, who only continues seeing “him” because Joe wants to acquire free things.
The plot doesn’t seem like it was of much interest to the makers of Albert Nobbs. Though director Rodrigo García does an excellent job of sustaining tone and creating a palpable atmosphere on a low budget, the movie remains pensive. As a result, it feels forced when it tries to ratchet up the tension at the end.
Ambiguity may operate in the movie’s favor when it comes to its idealism on gender roles, but when so little feels at stake in the story it’s hard not to be apathetic. Close and especially McTeer are very good, creating the movie’s best scenes just by giving us fresh characters that rarely show up in movies. Our ability to enter into the film’s world hinges on the image of Close’s transformed appearance, because as much as the movie wants us to see her as Albert the man in the beginning, she is far too recognizable a screen presence to be only that. Thankfully, her performance goes beyond Oscar ploy, no matter how much it seems to be only that. Both she and McTeer fill in their characters’ backstory with their eyes, which ends up being the movie’s saving grace.
Ultimately, Albert Nobbs, like so many other unfortunate instances at the movies, becomes more about good performances than good filmmaking. While praise is lauded on McTeer and Close’s acting, too much credit is given when the acting in movies like A Dangerous Method or Contagion fits in with a specific filming style so well. Albert Nobbs is shot as a typical character study, with its protagonist at the center of either every shot or every conversation.
There are moments when the story fuses with the acting, like when Albert and Hubert put on dresses and venture out into the world as women. This scene works until it’s played for comedy (Albert trips and falls!), but it shows a willingness on García’s part to pull the camera back and observe. More often than not the story is dominated with dialogue, showcasing Albert’s struggle for legitimacy on two fronts: earning enough money to own a shop and establishing a family while still disguised a man. The horrors of her past haunt her even if they remain cold in the movie.