Set in turn of the century Dublin, the film concerns the title character, a waiter at a hotel. Nobbs seems to think about only two things–his duties, and the money he’s saving under the floorboards, in the hope of one day opening a tobacco shop.
Nobbs keeps to himself. He gets along with the other staff, but it seems they don’t know anything about him. His age is impossible to guess. When a housepainter, Hubert Page, is hired to do some work, the owner (Pauline Collins), tells Nobbs he is to share his bed with Mr. Page. This horrifies Nobbs.
It would have been interesting to view this film through a different prism. As it is, everyone who sees it will know that Nobbs is played by a woman, Glenn Close, and that Mr. Page is played by Janet McTeer (both are Oscar nominees). Thus there is no Crying Game surprise–early on McTeer sees that Nobbs is a woman. In order to calm fears that McTeer will tell her secret, McTeer, spectacularly, reveals that she shares the same secret. What if the film had unknown actors, and we didn’t know what Nobbs was hiding? That would have been a different movie, and perhaps a better one.
McTeer is a revelation to Nobbs in more ways than one. Not only does she learn that she’s not the only person living this kind of lie, but McTeer is happily married–to a woman, a feminized woman. Nobbs, with new purpose, seeks to court a maid at the hotel (Mia Wasikowska). But Wasikowska is sleeping with a handyman (Aaron Johnson), who urges her to exploit Nobbs for gifts. We know that Nobbs is headed for heartbreak.
This is a fairly interesting story, based on a novella by George Moore and with a script by Close and John Banville (Close was so involved she even co-wrote the closing song). It is directed lovingly but gingerly by Rodrigo Garcia. I found, though, that it didn’t really grab my attention, and I fear the problem is in the central character. Close is quite good, expressing the character with a minimum of expression–after all, she has been a waiter since the age of 14, trained to react, and not speak unless to spoken to. Close’s characterization is all observation and waiting.
But I couldn’t help but wonder, is Nobbs some kind of simpleton? She is seen counting her money, speaking aloud, confronting things as if they were difficult equations. When she courts Wasikowska, asking her to marry him, is there any reason that a different outcome could have been expected? There is very little background to the character–an orphan, masquerading as a boy to get a job, and then being trapped in that charade for the rest of one’s days–but I couldn’t tell what made the character tick. Maybe all there was was what we see.
McTeer, on the other hand, has a wider berth, and I found to be a more moving characterization, even in her brief scenes. She’s also more convincing as a man. It is a testament to both performances how, late in the film, when they don more traditional female garb, that both looked like men in drag.
I found Albert Nobbs worthwhile, but just barely. See it for the performances, but don’t go expecting to be knocked out or provoked in thought.
My grade for Albert Nobbs: C+.