In 19th Century Ireland, amid an atmosphere of ceremony and tradition, Albert Nobbs has dedicated his life to the service of others. Squirreling away every thruppence and sixpence in a makeshift floorboard bank in his room, Nobbs knows there will come a day when he can focus on his own happiness, his own dreams. With the arrival of a talented house painter, Nobbs’ existence is thrown into flux as his world is flooded with new and unimaginable possibilities.
This is a film that should come with a disclaimer: Albert Nobbs is one of those rich, layered experiences that exacts an emotional toll on its audience.
The first clue that you’re about to see something special should be the presence of the superlative and incomparable Glenn Close. The actress/producer/writer spent nearly 15 years trying to adapt the story to screen. And while that’s not entirely uncommon in Hollywood, it does speak to her obvious passion for the story and the role.
Close, who had been mostly absent from the big screen (save a voice over roll in the 2011 feature animated film Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil), had spent the four years leading up to Albert Nobbs absolutely dominating the realm of network television in the roll of Patty Hewes on Damages. I rarely go in for any show put on by a major network. Damages is an exception. Glenn Close brings the craft to epic level proportions wherever she goes.
The second clue that Albert Nobbs is worth a watch is the presence of Janet McTeer, Brenda Fricker (Cloudburst), and a budding Mia Wasikowska.
So, why didn’t Albert Nobbs make its money back at the box office? Why wasn’t this film as much of a success in cinemas as it was with the critics? After all, both Close and McTeer received numerous award nominations for their performances – including nods from the Academy.
I’d like to say the answer is simple and maybe point a finger to the film’s subject matter. But, nothing about Albert Nobbs is simple.
As a woman pretending to be a man in 19th century Ireland, the character of Albert Nobbs is neither entirely unique, surprising, or scandalous. Women dressing like men was a far more common occurance than most people think – especially in an environment and culture where possibilities and opportunities for women were constrained and limited.
Following a near-fatal assault suffered at the hands of several attackers, a young Albert might have faded into oblivion. Instead, seeing an opportunity to serve as a waiter at a large social function, Albert buys a suit and decides to try living as a man. Flash forward three decades. Albert has served as a waiter in nearly every reputable establishment in England and Ireland. No one has been the wiser. Albert muses that no one would have guessed until the day he died.
It isn’t until Nobbs’ world is interrupted by the presence of Hubert that his head-down approach to life is thrown completely, utterly out of whack. A whole world of opportunity opens up before him as he begins to realize he isn’t the only one – there are others! – and that it’s possible to find companionship, love. The transformation would be almost comical if the situation weren’t so bloody tragic.
I get that it may still be hard for some people to accept that everyone should have the same opportunities in life and, barring that, at least have a shot at something better than the situation into which they are born. With Albert Nobbs, not only do we get a character who had to pretend to be something other than who they were in order to merely survive, but we see them present a desire for more. Look beyond the obvious here (a woman living in drag and entertaining a life – as a man – with a woman, a wife) and you’ll find an expertly woven character drama propped against delicious period clothing and set design.
For me, the character of Albert is an inspiration and a reminder. Close presents a tender, quietly hopeful person, content to live their life in pursuit of a tomorrow that may never well come. He is a character for whom, despite his quirks and tics, I can ultimately relate.
Subject matter aside, did the film’s lack of dramatic thrust or conflict turn off audiences?
When you try to imagine the rather dangerous world in which Albert lives, is it possible that the film did not match the level of courage and daring required to translate Albert’s plight to the silver screen? Yes, I think so. I think the production of the film is splendid – the acting is singularly accomplished. But do I think the film went to the places it could of – and should of – gone? No. Having said that, I can also admit that filmmaking – and storytelling, by extension – must carefully strike a balance between art and marketability. It’s weird to be saying I wish a film in which the women dressed like men would have gone further and been more bold.
Maybe it’s that – despite being a careful, studied portrayal – Glenn Close’s Albert is mostly sexless, inhabiting neither gender fully. I would have liked to have seen the character “go there” as an expression of a sexual self, rather than endure his attempts to obtain a companion in the flirtatious (and pregnant) Helen. I found myself blathering at the screen – “she’s not right for you, Albert!”
I blame this disconnect and dissatisfaction on our modern, media-saturated sensibilities and tastes. I have no doubt that Albert – and most everything Close affects – is pitch perfect for the era in which the character finds themselves mired. That I secretly wanted some weird and completely inappropriate hook up between Close and McTeer is entirely on me. I accept that. I own that.
And on the topic of McTeer … damn. I mean that. Her performance is absolutely astounding. For audiences unfamiliar with the actress’ career, McTeer is no stranger to LGBT-themed cinema. In 1990, the actress starred as (bisexual) writer Vita Sackville-West in Portrait of a Marriage. While starring in an LGBT film no longer poses the same kind of potentially career-killing threat, in 1990 McTeer took a huge risk. Her strength as a performer is evident in Marriage but in Nobbs the actress’ talent is completely undeniable.
Albert Nobbs is a well crafted, well paced period film. Close and McTeer live up to (and blow away) all expectations, both – in their own ways – elevating the craft. If I have one gripe about the film it’s that it didn’t go far enough and felt a little too safe. A stark – and disappointing – contradiction to the film’s central themes and story.
I do recommend the film to fans of Close who will see in this performance the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to perfecting her craft. And, to any woman who enjoys wearing jeans, slacks, or shorts, Albert Nobbs should be required viewing.
Albert & Hubert Discuss Marriage, Possibilities:
Glenn Close Interview:
Janet McTeer Talks about Drag: