Albert Nobbs struggles to survive in late 19th-century Ireland, where women aren't encouraged to be independent. Posing as a man so she can work as a butler in Dublin's most elegant hotel, Albert meets a handsome painter and looks to escape the lie she has been living.
In 19th century Dublin, Albert Nobbs, an eccentric man in the latter part of middle age, works as a waiter in Morrison's Hotel run by the stingy and controlling Marge Baker. Albert is hard working and saves his money so that one day he will be able to eke out a better life for himself by owning his own business rather than work at the hotel. Beyond his work colleagues, he is all alone in the world. One day, a man named Hubert Page is hired by Mrs. Baker to paint one of the rooms in the hotel. She forces Hubert to share Albert's bed for the one night he is required to stay to complete the work, much to Albert's horror. Hubert discovers the reason Albert did not want to share a room with him. But rather than the issue being a problem, Hubert shows Albert that he can follow a slightly different life path than the one he envisioned for himself - one closer to the life that Hubert leads with his wife Cathleen - which includes getting married and having a wife to support him emotionally. ... Written by
Fascinating lead performances outshine a not as compelling story
When men dress up as women in the movies, it is almost always in a comedy or farce; think Some Like It Hot (1959), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Tootsie (1982). However, when the situation is reversed and the film concerns women dressing up as men, the movie is habitually a drama bordering on tragedy: Yentl (1983), Boys Don't Cry (1999), and Osama (2003). Perhaps men trying to pass themselves off as women are just funnier and more outlandish, but the reasons behind it are usually not as urgent. In Albert Nobbs, Albert (Glenn Close) is the head waiter at an upscale hotel in 19th century Ireland. He appears to be middle-aged and has been passing himself off as a man since he/she was 14. His livelihood and future in the midst of immense unemployment and desperate surroundings depend on maintaining this deception.
I use the pronouns 'he' and 'his' because nothing about Albert is female except for the some well hidden physiology. Albert is extremely adept at passing as a man. When he speaks at all, his voice is low. His hair is short, he is impeccably dressed, his manners are irreproachable, and he does nothing whatsoever to call any attention to himself. As any man-servant should be, he is invisible. Working in the hospitality industry is just a means to end for Albert though. He lives such a spartan lifestyle because he hoards his money underneath his floorboard to one day soon purchase a shop and become a respected tobacconist. He is close; he has identified the vacant shop, has planned its layout, and can almost feel the escape which will come when he is his own boss.
Albert knows something is missing in his grand scheme though; he is lonely. In the beginning, he does not recognize he is missing anything important until he is forced to share his room one night with a man, Mr. Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). Through a contrived sequence, Albert is revealed as a female to Mr. Page and only later on learns Mr. Page is also a woman. Using what look like camera tricks and perspective shots, Mr. Page is a towering and bulky workman. He is also married to a woman. This bit of news tremendously confuses poor Albert. How is it possible for two women to be married to one another? It is obvious that Mr. Page and his wife are in a lesbian relationship; however, Albert would not even know what that word means. Albert comes across as asexual. There has never been a chance in his life to conceive of intimacy so all feelings and aspects of that persona just atrophied away.
Now that Albert's eyes are opened to the fact that there are women out in the world who are married to each other, he sets his eyes on the lowly but young and desirable chambermaid Helen (Mia Wasikowska). Helen knows just how pretty she is and becomes smitten by the newly employed handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson). Not only is Albert stunted in the intimacy realm of life, but his social skills are also not as fine tuned as the younger set who now aware of Albert's infatuation with Helen, may try to use those feelings for their financial gain.
While the story of Albert Nobbs is on the weaker side and not particularly engaging, the acting, specifically by Close and McTeer, is fascinating. There is a scene where Albert and Mr. Page try on some dresses and take a walk outside. For Albert, this is the first time he has worn a dress in probably 30 years. The immediate discomfort but growing acceptance and then utter joy on his face is a wonderful scene as he experiences some long repressed feelings while ecstatically running on the beach. McTeer's performance is equal to Close's in every way. She/he looks 100% like a man dressed up as a woman when he puts on that dress. The makeup department for this film is spot on, much better than J. Edgar and The Iron Lady. Even though they did not have to age the characters as those aforementioned films did, transforming two women into men so effectively as they do is worth the price of admission alone.
Director Rodrigo Garcia, who happens to be the son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is becoming known as the go-to filmmaker for involved and complex stories about women. He also directed Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000), Nine Lives (2005), and Mother and Child (2010), all recognized as thoughtful films with strong female leads. Glenn Close co-wrote the screenplay and brought with her a long experience of understanding Albert since she played him in the 1982 stage production.
I recommend Albert Nobbs to enjoy the performances and to witness the forceful presences of Glenn Close and Janet McTeer and their convincing portrayals of the opposite sex. The story is not as compelling as one would wish for a period piece such as this, but it is nevertheless overshadowed by the acting.
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