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Albert Nobbs (2011)

January 26, 2012

 

written by: Glenn Close and John Banville (screrenplay) & George Moore (short story, The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs)

produced by: Glenn Close, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn & Alan Moloney

directed by: Rodrigo Garcia 

rating: R (for some brief sexuality, brief nudity and some language)

runtime: 113 min.

U.S. release date: December 21, 2011 (limited) & January 27, 2012 (wide)

 

The problem with the titular character in “Albert Nobbs” is that we know he’s a she because he’s played by Glenn Close. That has to be said right from the start. It’s right there on the poster, it says it in the trailer, and she’s all over the making of this film as well. Close played the character on stage back in the early 80s and has been trying to get a big-screen adaptation of the 1927 short story by Irish novelist George Moore for the past 15 years. She produced and co-wrote this film and even wrote a song that plays during the end credits. So, what’s the problem with the audience knowing in advance that this Albert Nobbs character will be played by a recognizable actress?

Well, contextually speaking, the whole idea is for viewers to wonder what is up with this strange little man. Why does he keep to himself so? Why is he so quite and sheepish? Who is he?

If Nobbs was played by an unknown actress, then we’d be focusing more on the character, and not how close Close is to resembling a man. Her look here is initially quite distracting – looking like an elfin Robin Williams or a character from “The Adventures of Tintin”. Not to say that Close doesn’t deliver a good performance (because she does, even though it’s kind of bizarre), it’s just that our familiarity with her does the film a disservice.

In 19th century Dublin, Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) works as a waiter in a posh hotel, maintaining a quietly composed and utmost professional disposition while also maintaining a secret: he’s a woman. With her short hair, diminutive frame, and low alto voice, she’s been able to fool her employer, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) and all her co-workers, even though they all live where they work. The hotel’s regular patrons, like the bushy-bearded Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), regard her well, knowing her for the great service she provides. She has kept to herself for years, stowing away her earnings in her quarters, with hopes of opening up her/his own tobacco shop around the corner – maybe even find a woman to work the counter.

 

 

Nobbs’ careful facade is about to unravel when a painter named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) comes looking for work at the hotel, because Hubert lives with the same secret. Nobbs is frightened, confused, and relieved at such a revelation, having spent years posing as the opposite sex with no one to relate to. Now, here is Hubert, who towers over Nobbs like Gandalf next to a Hobbit and effortlessly exuding a brazen machismo. With disheveled look and cigarette dangling from her mouth, she is the complete opposite of the timid and blank-faced Nobbs. It’s Hubert’s confidence that conjures a newfound curiosity and boldness in Nobbs. She wants to know how Hubert has managed to get by amongst others, especially when she learns that she/he has a wife.

Nobbs wonders how that works – and if it’s something maybe she can pursue as well. Maybe such a future could exist with young Helen (Mia Wasikowska, “Jane Eyre”), if only she would take Nobbs’ awkward advances seriously, instead of entertaining the charms of Joe (Aaron Johnson, “Kick-Ass”), the recently-hired illiterate handyman. But Nobbs is a novice at pursuing her heart’s desire, and in navigating through this uncharted territory, she finds herself vulnerable to the harshness of reality and the absence of any reciprocation.

Although Close and McTeer deliver some fine work here, there are apparent distractions in both the story and the characterization that took me out of the film. The screenplay by Close and co-writer John Banville hiccups with unnecessary clichés instead of delving into the inner-workings of the lead character. We get a brief backstory on Nobbs and a vague idea of why she’s chosen to live as a man, but it’s never enough. She remains an ambiguous character throughout, leaving a big question mark on whether or not she truly has a grasp on her sexual identity and persuasion.

So, even though it’s fascinating to watch Close disappear into this gender swap role, and the makeup is mostly convincing – after a while, the whole thing is frustrating.

 

 

“Albert Nobbs” is a challenging watch for an audience, solely because it asks viewers to believe the unbelievable.  I found it increasingly difficult to comprehend  that everyone around Albert and Hubert saw them as men. If it was clearly obvious to me, then why couldn’t the characters in the film see through their charade? Maybe the short story or the play covered such nagging questions, but this film didn’t even bother touching it, which is kind of insulting. Unfortunately, even though Close and McTeer offer great work here, the problematic issue never left my mind, preventing me from fully investing in these roles.  Another unbelievable aspect is when we’re asked to believe in Nobbs’ courtship of Helen. Besides the fact that the age difference makes them look like grandfather and granddaughter, there was never any build-up whatsoever to this – it just came out of the blue, feeling  felt forced and false.

Director Rodrigo Garcia (“Mother and Child”) doesn’t bother to convincingly deal with these glaring elements as well.  In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything entirely unique about his directing here. Considering Close’s passionate involvement in the project, that’s a shame. These misfires find “Albert Nobbs” to be an intriguing albeit odd period piece, with its unconvincing aspects leading to its own undoing.

 

 

RATING: **1/2

 

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2012 5:27 pm

    I thought McTeer was even better than Close here. I liked the beginning of the movie – it reminded me of “Downton Abby”, with all the help in the house and their conversations in the kitchen. I thought the movie was a bit too messy and too much focus went to Helen and her issues with her boyfriend. I guess I just thought it quite boring and not worthy of the performances. Good review David.

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