Directed by Rodrigo García
Screenplay by Glenn Close and John Banville
Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, Maria Doyle Kennedy
How long is Albert Nobbs? 113 minutes.
What is Albert Nobbs rated? R for some sexuality, brief nudity and language.
A vignette designed to tweak your heartstrings,
featuring brilliant performances from Close and McTeer.
In the screening of Albert Nobbs, the Centerpiece film at the Virginia Film Festival, producer Julie Lynn noted in the opening minutes of the panel that Glenn Close had been angling to make this movie for nearly two decades. Close mostly gravitates toward two types of roles: women as oversexed as they are neurotic (Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons), and repressed housewives (the 2004 version of The Stepford Wives, The Chumscrubber). The character of Albert Nobbs, a nineteenth century British butler, fits with absolutely none of Close’s earlier work, and that is its greatness – and possibly Close’s saving grace with the Academy (this is her sixth nomination).
Although the Occupy movement has largely fallen out of public view in favor of the upcoming presidential election, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots currently looms large in the American psyche. We and the Brits have a long-standing affection for upstairs-downstairs tales, those that chronicle the rich and their servants in equal measure (the BBC’s Downton Abbey is a current, and brilliant, example). Albert Nobbs is one of these upstairs-downstairs fables, with a serious, subversive twist.
Albert is a butler at Morrison’s Hotel in nineteenth century Ireland; he caters silently to those who indulge in elegance and decadence. Albert is “such a kind little man,” a tireless worker whose professional manner is unparalleled. He stands with impeccable posture and makes no eye contact with guests; he remains on the fringes, refilling drinks and wrangling naughty maids. What no one has yet realized is that Albert is a woman. Big, masculine Mr. Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter assigned to redo the hotel’s interiors, changes Albert’s life when it is revealed that Mr. Page is also passing: he’s a lady in drag, and a lady in love with another lady for that matter. (This reveal involves the best reaction to being flashed I’ve seen in years, and possibly ever.)
When Albert learns of Mr. Page’s lifestyle, he begins to change in ways both subtle and blatant. He openly pursues lovely young maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) despite her involvement with drunken handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson). Joe pimps out Helen to squeeze a few expensive chocolates and bottles of booze out of Albert, and Albert is none the wiser. He’s too busy zeroing in on a property across town, a building in which to open a tobacco shop with a parlor for Helen, the prototype of the beautiful young wife. Albert strives for connections and suddenly finds himself completely inept. When the typhoid epidemic ravages Ireland, the Morrison Hotel finds itself in a bad way, and Helen discovers she’s pregnant. When Joe gets violent, Albert, having found his voice, his purpose, strives to intervene – and the consequences are dire.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (whose role is nearly a cameo, and who is apparently a friend of Glenn Close) and Brendan Gleeson (who saw a Golden Globe nomination for The Guard this year) play wealthy drunks frequenting the hotel, while The Tudors’s Maria Doyle Kennedy has a small role as Mary. The cast is small, the dialogue is tight, and the locations largely confined: Albert Nobbs is based on a play that is based on a short story, and that’s its biggest failing. Despite two brilliant performances and a timeless, heart-wrenching tale of oppression and fear, the movie lacks depth. It’s a vignette, one designed to punch patrons in the face and leave them reeling (the end of the film in particular seems designed for this).
Close surely deserves her Oscar nomination (I wrote in my notes “total Oscar bait”); Albert begins the film with affect as flat as a board, but as the plot progresses, Close inhabits the role with a reserved, confused, aching sadness that will seize your heart. Janet McTeer, who was nominated for Best Actress in 2000 for Tumbleweeds, turns in a gorgeous, unflinching performance worthy of her 2012 Supporting Actress nomination. Wasikowska, whose roles in last year’s Jane Eyre and previously Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, is a very serious young woman (she’s obviously uncomfortable with fashion and wary of microphones, as evidenced at the panel), and it’s delightful to see her joke and laugh as Helen. (She also noted charmingly, “I was so terrified of [Close] in 101 Dalmations.”)
Director Rodrigo García, the sole man onstage with a panel of women (including Wasikowska, Julie Lynn, and co-producer Bonnie Curtis) mentioned that he’s been called “a champion of women’s stories.” Garcia, who has mostly worked on well-loved TV shows, says women’s stories are simply more interesting to him than men’s. Thus Albert Nobbs, the tale of a woman who for all intents and purposes becomes a man, was a beacon for him. Further, he said, he felt it was both a timeless and timely story, one that is less about homosexuality than about a person striving for connections he just can’t grasp. One might even say it’s about a person struggling to meet the status quo – to be what he’s supposed to be – and failing. With the economy in a slump and the American Dream crumbling for working Joes across the country, this is a version of the tale with which we can identify. Albert, says Garcia, is “beyond the closet.” It doesn’t matter what his sexual orientation is (or isn’t), nor does it even particularly matter his gender. In the end, he’s just a human being striving to be happy, and we can identify with that.