Albert Nobbs: A Review

Albert Nobbs – Dir: Rodrigo Garcia; *ing: Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Pauline Collins

Dude looks like a lady

Let’s start this with a question, one that carries universal resonance but which, like other questions of this profound nature, is probably destined to remain unanswered: just what does Glenn Close have to do in order to win an Oscar around here?? Patiently wait another fifteen years till she’s an octogenarian so she can get one of those ‘sorry-for-overlooking-your-great-work-all-these-years-here’s-a-cookie-to-make-up’ honorary awards? If life, and those good old boys of the MPAAS, were fair, she’d already have two of the golden baldies, one for her debut in The World According to Garp, and another for her icy villainess Isabelle de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons. As it stands though, Close has always been the bridesmaid with no cigar, including at this year’s ceremony where she was trumped to the podium by The Streep, whose turn as Thatcher is certainly award-worthy, but at the cost of yet another brilliant Close performance being ignored? Debatable.

For Close, Albert Nobbs has been a labour of love. She starred in the stage version of George Moore’s novella back in 1982 and had been trying to get the project to the screen since, and it’s not difficult to see why: the titular character, a woman in 19th Century Dublin passing as a man in order to be financially and socially secure, is a tempting challenge for any actor worth her salt – intriguing yet subtle, unlikable yet sympathetic, simple yet enigmatic. Nobbs has lived this masquerade for so long she barely remembers what it’s like to be a woman. As a quietly efficient butler at the Morrison Hotel, she goes through life as if in a vacuum, with no real friends or intimate relationships, with no true sense of self, always in dread of being discovered, while dreaming of being economically independent. Her intense dedication to her chores masks the vagaries of what is clearly a deeply unhappy life. When she meets gruff, tough-talking Hubert Page (McTeer), another woman living as a male house painter, it opens up her eyes to new possibilities of the manufactured lifestyle, ones involving flirtatious hotel maid Helen (Wasikowska). But Nobbs’ aspirations are misguided and unrealistic, based as they are, in a lie, and, perhaps inevitably, meant to never be fulfilled.

It’s interesting how cross-dressing films about men are almost always comedies (Tootsie, White Chicks et al) while those involving women are usually cautionary dramas (Boys Don’t Cry), as if when men buck societal norms it’s all (wink-wink) in a day’s work, but when women do it it’s a very real threat to carefully maintained social fabrics and to be addressed as such. Perhaps for that reason, Albert Nobbs is an unrelentingly sad story. In presenting a lead character who lives in disguise not for personal or sexual fulfillment but for rather more mundane (if important) reasons of security and safety, the film embodies the sense of tragedy inherent in the ‘people with secrets’ literary/cinematic theme. It also, to a lesser degree, explores the pitfalls of class distinction in a fiercely patriarchal society. So were it not for the top-notch performances, it would be a hard sell. Besides Close, remarkably and discomfitingly introverted and awkward, fellow Oscar nominee McTeer paints a quietly charismatic counterpoint to the drab and lonely Nobbs, with a scene-stealing turn. Also commendable is the film’s period recreation, awash in dreary but atmospheric greys and gentle blues, echoing the melancholic internal landscape of what is a difficult but ultimately poignant story.

 

Cult: Yentl – Barbra Streisand brings to life Isaac Bashevis Singer’s tale of a Jewish woman disguising herself as a boy in order to study Talmud in turn-of-the-century Poland.

Current: The Iron Lady – Check out Glenn Close’s only real (and triumphant) competitor at the Academy Awards this year.

Coming Attraction: The Amazing Spiderman – Because superheroes are the ultimate cinematic people-with-secrets.

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