ALBERT NOBBS, 2012
Stars: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, Janet McTeer, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Brenda Fricker, Pauline Collins, Bronagh Gallagher, John Light
Glenn Close plays a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland. Some thirty years after donning men's clothing, she finds herself trapped in a prison of her own making.
Let's not mince words about it – 19th century Ireland was a dreary place. Shackled under English rule, brewing the beginning of the Troubles, and with ridiculously high unemployment, massive numbers of Irish were leaving the country to find life and work elsewhere, because there were so few options for the average man to make a living. And even fewer for the average woman. So even though it may seem strange after the fact, when taken in context it may not be as odd as it initially seems that Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) has been pretending to be a man for three decades in order to make her way in the world.
That said, Rodrigo Garcia's adaptation of George Moore's short story is about far more than just poverty and the quest for a living, choosing instead to delve into complicated issues of identity, sexuality, and self-deception. I say Garcia's, but honestly "Alberta Nobbs" belongs heart and soul to Close, who not only anchors the film with a powerfully subtle performance, but who also produced, co-wrote the screenplay and even wrote one of the soundtrack's songs.
It's all the more impressive then that despite being unquestionably the main character, Albert does not monopolize his/her surroundings, instead fitting into a more considered whole. The job Albert has been masquerading to maintain is as a waiter at a Dublin hotel where she is a regular confident of the live in doctor (Brendan Gleeson) and one of a number of lower class workers all dreaming of the same thing: to live as their guests do.
"Albert Nobbs" at its outset is almost a comedy of manners, or at least pretends to be one long enough for its real purposes to come out, following along the bumps and prods between the classes and the continuing fascination of all people for love and money. The classic 19th century Victorianism begins to be washed aside as time goes on in order to show that everyone, regardless of sex or class, really wants the same thing, they just don't realize it.
After hiding as Albert for so long she doesn't even remember her real name anymore, her world is thrown upside down by the arrival of a woman (Janet McTeer) in similar straights who has made her life work without alienation or loneliness, even going so far as to get 'married' for companionship to someone who is in on the mystery. In the comedy of manners greatest joke (which is also purposefully the least funny) Albert takes completely the wrong lesson from this, and begins pursuing one of the hotel's maids (Mia Wasikowska) without bothering to wonder in sufficient detail how she will take the news that Albert is a woman.Which is the point where "Albert" the film's real character is exposed as it quickly morphs into a near ensemble, revealing the singular Albert as more of a catalyst than the center of the narrative. Even as she pursues Helen, all the while deluding herself as to the reality of what she is attempting, Helen allows it to go on in order to get money from Albert at the behest of her own love interest, following her own delusion that they will flee to America together.
Following the power of Close's performance, the pull back to the larger world would risk being a let down if she wasn't so ably supported; particularly by McTeer who often manages to upstage everyone around her. In fact it's easily possible to almost miss the job that Close is doing as she delves so far into Dobbs – a passive person him/herself – allowing everyone around to have the space they need. Wasikowska also continues to show her burgeoning chops, creating some of the most infuriating pathos in the film.
It's also quite breathtaking, with gorgeously constructed cinematography that manages to be both dreary and pleasing, much like the strange drama it is lighting.
For all that, "Albert Nobbs" is never quite more than the sum of its parts. While characterization and theme are handled superbly, the films tone and pacing hobble about quite often, never quite sure where their going or how to get there at the same time. Much like Albert it can't seem to decide what it wants to be: comedy of manners, drama of identity, treatise on classism. On top of which Close's performance, for all its subtlety, tends to overshadow everything else going on onscreen. Still, for that alone it is worth more than a look.