Glenn Close spent 30 years trying to get Albert Nobbs to the big screen, ever since she played the title role in the stage version off-Broadway in 1982. Finally she’s gotten her wish. She doesn’t just star in the movie, she’s also produced, co-adapted the script and even wrote the lyrics for the Sinead O’Connor song that plays over the end credits.
She is excellent as Albert, a waiter/butler in a late-19th Century Irish hotel who, despite being born a woman, has spent the last 30 years living as a man – a secret he has kept from absolutely everybody. He thinks the truth may get out after he’s forced to share his bed for the night with a painter called Hubert Page. However in a slightly ‘only in the movies’ coincidence, Hubert is also a woman living as a man (it certainly wasn’t unheard of for woman to successfully makes lives for themselves as men in Victorian times, so it’s not completely preposterous two would accidentally meet). This chance meeting intrigues Albert, who discovers that not only is Hubert like him (at least in some ways), but he also has a wife.
Albert realises that perhaps the rest of his life doesn’t have to be as lonely as he seems to have resigned himself to. So with the money he’s spent years saving, he starts to dream of opening his own tobacconist shop, and begins courting the beautiful Helen (Mia Wasikowska). Unfortunately after decades of keeping himself emotionally closed off, Albert isn’t exactly the most confident or socially adept suitor. This is made even more difficult by the fact Helen is also seeing the fiery and rather amoral Joe (Aaron Johnson). Joe dreams of going to America but doesn’t mind Helen trying to get gifts and presents from Albert in the meantime.
Albert Nobbs is a film that’s as infuriating as it is fascinating. Despite attempts to get inside Albert’s head, it never fully reveals him, partly because he’s such a shy, emotionally controlled character, it’s difficult to find a way to fully uncover his interior life without undermining him. Albert reminded me of Anthony Hopkin’s exceptionally reserved butler, Stevens, in The Remains Of The Day. That character works largely due to Emma Thompson helping reveal an interior truth that the buttoned-down Hopkins can only hint at. Nobbs on the other hand doesn’t have someone like that, and while Hubert Page helps to reveal him, we still never fully understand him.
Is Albert living as a man because that’s who he feels he really is? Is it because he believes it’s the only way for a woman to get ahead as an independent person in the 19th Century? Does he think it will help protect him from a repeat of bad things that happened in his youth? Would she properly be described as transsexual, a lesbian, straight, or because of the period this is set in, can those labels ever apply in a way we’d understand them today? Does he genuinely love Helen but doesn’t know how to show it, or is his interest in her more about the fantasy of a life with a shop and wife? Is it a mix of these things?
The movie never really resolves these questions, which is frustrating but also ensures that it keeps your mind whirring. Albert has become so obsessed with playing by strict societal rules – in order to ensure he keeps his place as a man in it – that he’s lost sight of the realities and messiness of emotions and human relationships. But while his journey is endlessly intriguing, it’s sometimes tough to know exactly where Albert is coming from or the full truth of what he’s trying to get to.
Although Hubert’s character is slightly clearer, even with him it’s not completely clear if he lives as a man because he’s genuinely transsexual or if this is the best way he sees of being able to live as an independent family unit with the woman he loves. The film is more interested in exploring how society traps women in various ways and makes them beholden to men. It does a good job of showing this, but it does so at the expense of really understanding who the various people are as individuals.
While these things are frustrating, they’re not fatal, as the movie is certainly entertaining and keeps you watching. Indeed it’s one of the most interesting things about the movie that with relatively few changes you could have made the same movie but with Albert as a character who was born as a man. In that case his full motivations would have been a lot clearer – which is perhaps the point, that the way we view women who take on masculine positions is needlessly overanalysed, when what they often want is the same as a man. We’d know exactly who Albert was if he didn’t have breasts and none of his desires or attitudes would have to change. That alone is pretty fascinating.
The movie is helped tremendously by an almost excessively good cast. Glenn Close is brilliant (if it weren’t for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, there’s a damn good chance she’d have won the Best Actress Oscar), but is nearly outshone by the Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer as Hubert Page. Other roles are filled with aplomb by the likes of Pauline Collins, Brendan Gleeson, Brenda Fricker and Aaron Johnson, while you almost wonder why they bothered to get the likes of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Mark Williams and Phyllida Law in parts that rarely ask them to do more than hang around in the background. However it certainly ensures there’s not one duff moment on the acting score.
It is a shame that some of the movie feels unclear though. It is perhaps the result of director Rodrigo Garcia making the layer just under the character’s skin too clear (such as Albert’s literal visions of contented family life as a shopkeeper), without ever cutting down to the bone of the characters.
Overall Verdict: Although the film keeps your mind buzzing about Albert and his life, the fact some things are never resolved is rather frustrating. It’s nevertheless entertaining and always intriguing.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac