Based on a short story by Irish novelist George Moore, Albert Nobbs comes prepackaged with a tremendous amount of critical hype, thanks to the notable performance of Glenn Close. Playing a woman pretending to be a man is the awards equivalent of a defibrillator, sending out a clear electric wave of revitalisation to one’s career and sweeping suggestions of braveness, the likes not seen since Nicole Kidman strapped on a faux nose for The Hours. With Close already the winner of Best Actress at the Tokyo International Film Festival, this gender bender of a film is already in talks for being Close’s welcome back to the Oscar party.
In 19th century Ireland, Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is a woman posing as a man in service at an opulent Dublin hotel. Having worked there for over 30 years, Nobbs finds herself planning her own second life, with her life’s saving intended for opening a small shop with the wife in a little room out the back. Nobbs picks fellow downstairs staff member Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), but complications arise when roustabout Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson) enters their lives, along with the mysterious presence of painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer).
Central to the success of a film like Albert Nobbs is the performance from the central figure. Perhaps it was an almost fatal flaw in choosing the recognisable Close as Nobbs, who has not only been Oscar nominated for her very femme roles in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons, but has appeared weekly in people’s living rooms in TV’s Damages. It is a credit then to Close that she does manage to disappear into the role for whole sequences, although is undoubtedly still a woman in man’s clothing. When she does get it right, it’s not simply the clothing that she inhabits, but the understated mannerisms of her character. This is the true strength of the role, one that is believable in that she is hiding in plain sight at a time when it was becoming increasingly easy to do so. These days, everyone on the Internet is a promiscuous 19-year-old French exchange student named Simone. Janet McTeer, as the similar situated Hubert, should be doubly commended for her portrayal, as she managed to convey a world of hurt and pain and great triumph in only a handful of scenes.
The plotting, on the other hand, is awkward at best. Very much an upstairs/downstairs comic-drama in the vein of so many BBC productions that have come before, the mini-dramas that crop up along the way are straight out of a textbook. Joe Macken’s affair with Helen ends where every 19th century sticky fumbling between the help would lead, although this one has a slightly more upbeat conclusion that your average Thomas Hardy novel. There’s also the standard assortment of well-cast regulars: the doctor (Brendan Gleeson) and the Viscount (Jonathan Rhys Myers) just to name a few. Similarly, beyond Nobbs’ very single-minded quest, there isn’t actually anything resembling a narrative journey, although the sealing of Nobbs’ fate as soon as she steps outside her own prison is perhaps the grandest statement that the film makes.
Filled with equal parts comedy and drama, there isn’t really a point to Albert Nobbs, as director Rodrigo García meanders around giving the audience lovely period sets to look at. This is primarily a performance piece, and Glenn Close is the primary performer. Like a stage play, there are time when you can see the acting, although as a showcase for the actors this does an excellent job. It is just one of the film’s great disappointments that the performances are just one of the facades that the film wears to present itself anonymously to the public.
Albert Nobbs is released in Australia on 26 November 2011 from Hopscotch. It is released in the US on 21 December 2011 in limited release, and in wider release on 27 January 2011.