An odd mix of quaint and edgy, Albert Nobbs has a plot that often smacks of the creakiest kind of Victorian melodrama. Yet at other times, the story feels startlingly modern, with its insights into gender confusion and sexual identity in turn-of-the-century Ireland. Filming this tale of a middle-aged woman who has lived her entire adult life as a man has been a labor of love for executive producer and star, Glenn Close; she also co-wrote the script and provided lyrics for the closing-credits theme song.
What may surprise viewers is that the film is adapted from a novella first published in 1918 by Anglo-Irish, Victorian/Edwardian author and critic George Moore. A pioneer of Modernist and realist fiction, Moore often wrote about characters outside traditional gender and sexual "norms," their quest to know who they are, and to find ways to be true to themselves. Some tired fictional conventions from the era in which the story was written linger in Rodrigo García's film version—most notably in the probable fate of sexual "outlaws"—yet Close and fellow scribes John Banville and Gabriella Prekop come up with some other alterations to make the tale more forward-thinking and intriguing for modern sensibilities, while retaining Moore's twin moods of gentle pathos and social satire.
At the center of the tale is Albert Nobbs (Close), a fastidious veteran waiter at a Dublin hotel called Morrison's, ca. 1898. Quiet and reserved around the servants' dining table in the kitchen, and never one to gossip, Albert operates just beneath the notice of the hotel's swanky clientele, but always remembers what the gentlemen prefer to drink and their wives' favorite flowers. Albert is such a model of self-effacing efficiency, no one suspects that beneath his high-buttoned collars and hidden corset, he's actually a woman.
But Albert has another secret known only to herself. For years she's been saving up all the coins and gratuities doled out to her by the hotel's wealthy guests; like generations of servants before her, she dreams of being her own boss and opening her own little shop, with living quarters upstairs and a parlor in back. The ordinariness of this dream is almost painfully poignant, especially when Albert perceives she'll need a "girl" to run the front of the shop, and embarks on an awkward attempted courtship of Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a flirty, pretty parlor maid at the hotel. This arouses the curiosity of the sexy, rough-hewn, new porter, Joe (Aaron Johnson), who sweeps Helen off her feet, but advises her to play along with Albert to see what she can get out of the "strange little man."
An outcast orphan who adopted a male persona to survive as a lone teenage girl, Albert has identified as male for so long, she no longer has any other sense of herself. It's not like she takes off her disguise in her room at night; she is her disguise. But neither does the intimacy-challenged Albert understand the kind of emotional attachment usually involved in a courtship, nor consider that a potential bride might find anything lacking in the arrangement. Close captures this essence of Albert, his innocence and ignorance, with heartbreaking rigor.
But the film really comes alive in its portrait of a lesbian couple Albert meets by chance. Janet McTeer is absolutely extraordinary—bluff, cheeky, and wryly self-possessed—as the partner who cross-dresses as a man, enabling them to live together as a married couple. The astonished Albert has never heard of such a thing, but her tragedy is that she takes away the wrong lesson from their encounter, that taking a wife might be possible, not the joy of finding someone to love her for who she is inside.
The conclusion of Albert's story feels like a failure of imagination in author Moore, who couldn't decide what else to do with her, but Close and company add a coda that wraps things up on a satisfying, ironic note. The biting social commentary in this upstairs/downstairs milieu is well done, the costumes are beautifully realized, and a delicious cast of seasoned pros like Brendan Gleeson and Pauline Collins keep this nuanced fable of gender, class and identity percolating along.
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, and Janet McTeer.
Written by Directed by Rodrigo García. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 113 minutes.
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