Starring: Glenn Close, Janet McTeer
Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia
3 out of 5 stars
Some of the best moments of Albert Nobbs come from a look or a pause. They are moments devoted to capturing the posture of its working class, the silence of a secret or the embarrassment of an intimate exchange. Put together, the parts that function best come to form a portrait of a woman in 1850’s Ireland – a woman disguised as a man.
Based on a novella by George Moore, and spearheaded by actress Glenn Close for its adaptation, the film tells the peculiar tale of gender and survival. As the attentive waiter of Dublin’s Morrison Hotel, Albert (Close) is extolled as the archetype of prim and proper.
With skin strangely tight, hair carefully coiffed, and a demeanour bereft of gender, Closes’ studied portrayal is no less an uncanny feat of androgyny. Conscious of guest’s secrets, we never get the tipoff that they are on to hers - with one patron even remarking, ‘what a kind, little man.”
Placed in and around the hotel, the film’s tendency to dwell on servants and sophisticated clientele is obvious and rather simple. The heart of the matter, as personified in its title, is the question of identity.
Serving under an undetermined amount of time, Albert’s hotel tenure has afforded her the ability to save and fantasize for an economic escape. Beneath her bedroom floor lays a treasury of coins, preserved from years of strict diligence. Like her other, more solemn secret, Albert’s reasons for hiding are more enigmatic than the screenplay lets on (implying rape under her hush tone of naivety).
For some, Close’s performance may be dismissible as mere make-up and male drag. It isn’t. With complete dedication, she restricts herself from overacting and in turn crafts an homage to Charlie Chaplin with childlike poise and manner.
Circumstance transpires and one day the unblinking Nobbs is instructed to share her bed with Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter with an unreadable countenance. Albert remains terrified, mind you, vehemently guarding herself amidst the awkward predicament.
The plot thickens, and in lieu of bearing a flea-ridden bed, Albert violently stumbles, relieving herself of a confining girdle to Hubert’s knowing eye.
In the wake of fear and concealment, Albert’s gender bending unveil does little to damper Hubert’s nights rest. Turns out Mr. Page has been living a similar secret, but for her own reasons.
Having successfully impersonated a working class man, the painter’s confidence awakens Albert’s own, allotting the asexual being to explore emotion, femininity and even the thought of marriage.
Together, both actresses establish a charismatic bond that comes to define the picture’s strength. Janet McTeer as Hubert Page is an absolute marvel.
Duly awarded an Academy Award nomination (along with Glenn Close), her performance is star making, and beautifully unannounced from left field.
Unfortunately, the rest of the picture plods with an ensemble cast straddling class prejudices and whiny melodramatics. The overarching story of a Victorian Hotel is familiar, further tarnished by two supporting parts that emanate a whiff of amateurism.
Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson seem to exist only to shove the story to its inevitable conclusion, playing lovebirds within the Hotel’s working staff - one a brutish urchin, the other an object of Albert’s desire. Neither work.
As a whole, the film travels unevenly, fastened by two superb performances. With Meryl Streep receiving her 17th Oscar nomination for the Iron Lady, it comes as a shock that this is only Glenn Close’s sixth. Considering her 23-year gap from 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, Albert Nobbs reinstates why she rivals America’s finest living actress.