Directed by: Rodrigo García.
Written by: Glenn Close and John Banville and Gabriella Prekop based on the short story by George Moore.
Starring: Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Mia Wasikowska (Helen), Aaron Johnson (Joe), Janet McTeer (Hubert), Brendan Gleeson (Dr. Holloran), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Viscount Yarrell), Brenda Fricker (Polly), Pauline Collins (Mrs. Baker).
Everyone agrees that Albert Nobbs is a good man. He is a waiter/butler at an upscale hotel in Dublin around 1900, and he does what all good servants do – blend into the background. He is always there, behind the scenes, making sure that everything goes okay. He knows everyone’s routine, their likes and dislikes, and ensures they have what they want. He is also smart, and has saved all of his money over the years. He keeps it under the floorboards, and keeps meticulous records of how much is there. He hopes to buy a business – a tobacco shop. Perhaps he’ll even take a wife to help him work the counter. No one suspects that Albert isn’t really a man at all, but a woman in disguise. Years before words like transgender existed, Albert has disguised himself as a man so effectively and for so long that when someone finally does find out his secret and asks him his name he responds “Albert”. When asked, no, your real name, he responds “Albert” again. Albert may have disguised himself as a man for financial reasons at first – men have an easier time getting a job – but he has gone for so long that way that he has started to believe it himself, somewhere down deep.
The movie was produced, co-written and stars Glenn Close, who has been trying to get this movie made for more than a decade. You can see why. Albert is a great role; someone who has repressed themselves for so long, so effectively given up who they are, and become so lonely that he barely knows how to function any longer. He clings to his delusion of becoming a tobacco store owner, and marrying the beautiful Helen (Mia Wasikowska), even though everyone else can see she is in love with Joe (Aaron Johnson) and is merely taking advantage of Albert. Albert does find a confidant in Hubert (Janet McTeer), who has lived the same way he has, for nearly as long, but has found a way to be happy. Hubert is even married – to a woman no less.
It must be said that Close, and for that matter McTeer who is Close’s equal here, are better than the movie itself. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia – who directed Close in Nine Lives – the film has the same sensitivity and concern for women that that film did (or for that matter, his follow-up film Mother and Child). Perhaps Garcia, who is a better writer than director, should have taken a stab at a rewrite of the screenplay as well. The film is so emotionally closed off, because Albert is, that at times it’s almost stifling.
But Close is excellent as Albert. Because we know Close well from her decades of great work, it is a little hard to believe at first that no one would question that she’s really a woman. But then again, think about it. If someone told that they were a man, and everyone else seems to go along with it, would you really question it? I don’t think so. And Close does such an excellent job navigating the difficult role that you barely care. McTeer disappears more easily into the men’s costume and makeup, possibly because she’s not as well known. It’s through Hubert, that Albert starts to get his hopes up – which of course, ends up being his downfall. The rest of the cast is quite good, but their roles aren’t as deep. The beautiful Mia Wasikowska seems to have been cast for her beauty more than anything else. Albert regards her as an object, because he cannot quite bring himself to see her for who she truly is.
Overall, Albert Nobbs is a fascinating little movie, with a wonderful central performance by Close. You can see why she worked so long to get this movie made. It’s her best work in years. If only the movie could have measured up to the performance, it could have been one of the best of the year.