Review: Albert Nobbs

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Nominated for three Academy Awards, Albert Nobbs is a gentle, almost ephemeral film about gender identity. I don’t think it goes nearly far enough, though, other than scratch the surface of a significant issue–just what makes us the gender that we are?

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+.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

2 responses »

  1. Saw this today. Watching felt like a soul-draining experience, because it’s about deeply unhappy people but is also rather unartful. Plus, I think it’s a movie that has no idea what it’s about; I felt like the filmmakers don’t see these characters with any clarity at all.

    For example, is Albert’s gender switch a liberating experience for her or a situation she’s trapped in? Hubert tells her at one point that she has to be true to who she is, or something like that, but who is she? Does she have any feelings for Helen, or does she court Helen just because Helen happens to be there?

    I have no idea about any of this, and I don’t think the filmmakers do either. It’s just not a coherent film, and it’s deeply unpleasant besides.

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