Director: Rodrigo García
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Those are the words hotel waiter Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) uses to lie to his employer, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), about the condition of his mattress so he won’t have to share it with a temporary worker and risk revealing his secret—that Nobbs is actually a woman. Those are also the words that I would use to describe Albert Nobbs: there are a lot of great things about this film, but viewers can expect to roll over a few lumps while watching it.
Albert Nobbs, a passion project for Glenn Close, who did a stage version of the story in 1982 and not only stars in the film but also coproduced and cowrote it, is based on a short story by the great Irish writer George Moore. These days, Moore is not as famous a member of the Irish Literary Revival movement of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries as Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, but he was a highly influential and controversial one. He brought English literature into the modern age by offering realism and sex, including homosexuality, in place of romanticism. “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” published in 1927, displays all of these elements in spades, offering an exploration of gender and social class roles and the more Irish-centered concerns of delayed adulthood and idealized motherhood.
Albert is a very buttoned-up, 40ish person, careful and economical in both word and deed. He remembers little touches, like putting roses on the dinner table of a particular hotel guest, and these actions garner him the steady tips he records carefully in a ledger and squirrels under a floorboard in his room. His hope is to leave the employ of others and open his own shop. He has even located the property he wants to buy in a rundown part of Dublin.
Albert’s modest plan gets a major kickstart when he discovers the temporary worker he failed to avoid sleeping with shares Albert’s secret: Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) is also a woman. The pair exchanges stories. Page left an abusive husband who gave her a broken nose as a permanent scar, donned his clothes, and made a good living as a house painter, work that would not have been available to a woman. Page moved in with Kathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), a milliner, to share living expenses, and when the neighbors started to talk, they got married. Albert believes he is the unacknowledged bastard of a gentleman and well-born mother who died when Albert was an infant. She was cared for by a Mrs. Nobbs, who gave her her treasured picture of her mother, but nothing more in the way of information. Mrs. Nobbs died when Albert was 14, and she was gang-raped by some young men. Determined to get out of the miserable conditions in which she lived, she bought a second-hand suit and was hired on as a waiter at a short-staffed restaurant. And that was it—Albert’s life as a man and a waiter began.
Meeting Hubert sets the repressed Albert’s imagination on fire. When he learns Hubert has a wife, he is desperate to find out how Hubert did it—did he tell Kathleen before or after they were married, innocent of the notion that such a thing as a lesbian could exist. He tracks them down, and they invite him in for tea and conversation. He decides he wants to sell tobacco when they question what his intentions for his shop will be, but Albert has never even rolled a cigarette, much less smoked one. Albert wonders if a woman could sell tobacco; Hubert says yes and suggests that Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a pretty, young maid in the hotel, would be great for the job.
That idea planted like a weed in manure, Albert decides that he will court and marry Helen; he imagines the façade of the shop, “A. Nobbs, Tobacconist” hovering over the entryway, and a door leading to a sitting room where Helen sits knitting before a hearth fire. However, Helen is carrying on a sexual affair with Joe (Aaron Johnson), another employee whose only wish is to go to America and leave behind his troubled past. It’s hard to know how a middle-aged, chaste, peculiar cross-dresser will win Helen, but therein lies some of the intrigue of Albert Nobbs.
Glenn Close inhabits Albert like the closely tailored suit and bowler he wears. Subtle make-up provides her with a dessicated look appropriate to someone whose emotional life has all but dried up. When Albert’s carefully circumscribed life starts to unravel, Close offers jewels of uncontrollable emotional release that are quite touching. For example, in one scene, Albert and Hubert each don dresses Kathleen made and take a walk. The initial comedy of seeing two women acting believably like awkward men in drag gives way to a burst of feeling as Close opens her arms and runs as the wind skims under her skirt and blows her shawl loosely around her, the tight corset concealing Albert’s breasts and close-fitting suit and tie abandoned for a time. In another scene, Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), the sympathetic house doctor, ruminates with Albert at a fancy dress ball for which only the hotel guests are costumed, “We are disguised as ourselves.” But who really is Albert? He barely makes a start at finding out and growing up before fate intervenes.
Still, Albert Nobbs has some problems. First, and less critically, the pacing is uneven. Director Rodrigo García’s background includes both episodic television and episodic films, and Albert Nobbs feels episodic as well. A typhoid epidemic that hits in the middle of the film puts in place one important plot point. One of the hotel’s maids and Albert become infected, and Mrs. Baker’s self-pity at being abandoned by her patrons and closed down is a good capsule of her character. But the incident is so rushed through that the scope of the devastation barely registers. Helen and Joe’s affair has some lyrical moments, such as when Helen goes into a yard hung with drying sheets looking for Joe, but the relationship is a bit clichéd and rather uninteresting. Johnson doesn’t make Joe a very compelling character; though we feel drawn to take his side when he is dismissed from a previous job for daring to knock snow on the feet of some rich guests, he never puts the mix of vulnerable and callous together into a combustible brew.
Wasikowska is better as a young woman who is doomed to scrape after a living in the same way that forced Hubert and Albert into disguise, and she shows a conscience about using Albert, a strange but likable colleague at the hotel. Her confusion about leaving with the sexually entrancing Joe or opting for the security of Albert is real, and her attempt to make Albert into a more palatable mate by trying to teach him to kiss passionately is more sad than humorous.
The failure to find enough humor in Albert Nobbs is the film’s greatest weakness. If any ethnic group exemplifies the twin masks of comedy and tragedy, it is the Irish. I hate to say it, but I don’t think the Colombian director really understood the comedy underlying this superficially tragic story. His social critique of male/female and upper/lower class relations is almost nonexistent, relying on exposition (e.g., Hubert and Albert telling their stories) rather than any blackly comic exchanges to make the point. Albert’s sexual naivete could have had more humorous consequences than Close flailing on a park bench when Wasikowska kisses her. Could there not have been some curiosity or naïve questioning of Hubert and Kathleen? After all, Albert is emotionally and experientially stuck in prepubescence, and such questioning would be funny, poignant, and appropriate.
The very end of the film, when Hubert sees a photo in Albert’s room and turns it over to find the word “Mother” written on the back, was very funny for me, but I honestly don’t think that was the intention. The film seemed determined to make Albert a tragic and pitiable figure who was robbed of an authentic life, and possibly wished to make points as a gay-friendly film as well. The truth is that Albert is a bit dim and fell into a masquerade that pokes great fun at the marriage-shy, mommy-fixated Irish lad of yesteryear. While I recommend this film unreservedly for its fine performances and period detail, it falls just a bit short of what it could have been.