The titular character of “Albert Nobbs” is a very, very unhappy human being under miserable condition. The lonely, isolated life of this character is so devoid of any joy or happiness that she still does not know what to do even after encountering the possibility of a happier life. The more you look at her drab life, the more you feel sorry about a poor woman being locked inside it.
On the surface, Albert Nobbs(Glenn Close) is a plain middle-aged hotel waiter/butler who works at Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin during the late 19th century. Compared to the other waiters at the hotel, Nobbs is a very good service worker with experience and moderation, and the hotel guests always enjoy Nobbs’ service even though they sense something odd about this small, effeminate waiter. Nobbs has been fairly good with the other employees at the hotel, and Mrs. Baker(Pauline Collins), the owner of the hotel, has been satisfied with her dependable employee, but they all feel a certain distance while interacting with Nobbs, who is always quiet and never talks much with others.
Because many of you already know that Nobbs is played by Glenn Close, it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Nobbs is a woman disguising as a man. Close, who was Oscar-nominated for her performance in this film, usually stays still and quiet inside her character, and that low-key approach is exactly a right choice. Her character is always hiding behind her disguise while rarely drawing any particular attention to herself, and Close slowly conveys to us what is behind Nobbs’ rigid composure as we watch her going through her daily work with other employees. She may be accustomed to how she looks to others, but that does not change her real identity inside men’s wear, and we can see that she has been always in the fear of getting herself exposed.
We come to learn that she has passed as a man because she needed to be hired and earn money during her desperate past. She has been having a small dream of running her own tobacco shop someday, and she recently sets her eyes on one suitable empty storefront for her future business. She has also been saving a considerable sum of money, and now she is almost close to her dream.
And then something unexpected happens in her life. A guy named Hubert Page(Janet McTeer) comes to the hotel for a painting work to do, and Page happens to sleep in Nobbs’ room during that night. Nobbs is naturally uncomfortable about this sudden bedfellow, and Page soon finds out her secret, but, what do you know, Page turns out to be a woman just like Nobbs. In contrast to Nobbs, Page wears her disguise with swagger and some guts while suspected by no one, and she even has a wife with whom she lives in her cozy house.
Shocked and flabbergasted by this, Nobbs begins to wonder about whether she can also have a nice life just like Page, so she makes a tentative approach to Helen Dawes(Mia Wasikowska), one of young maids in the hotel. She has already been involved with a young new employee named Joe Mackins(Aaron Johnson), but Nobbs does not mind about that much, for all she needs is a woman who will run her future tobacco shop with her – and will live with her as a life partner.
Not so surprising for a woman who has probably never experienced any intimate relationship during her whole life, Nobbs is pretty clumsy and pathetic during her dates with Dawes. She handles her courtship as if it were a business matter, and that surely frustrates Dawes a lot. Persuaded by Mackins, she is ready to exploit Nobbs for their own dream, but she is quickly bored and confused as spending time with Nobbs – and she also realizes how caddish Mackins is.
The movie had been Close’s passion project for a very long time since she played her character in the Off-Broadway production of Simone Benmussa’s play which was based on Irish novelist George Moore’s short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs”. István Szabó, who is included in the credit as the co-writer along with Close, was attached to the project around the early 2000s when the production seemed to be started, but the production was cancelled due to a financing problem, and now the movie was finally made under the direction of Rodrigo Garcia, who previously collaborated with Close in “Nine Lives”(2005) and did a good job of making a solid character-driven drama within the setting of period movie.
With Close’s understated but strong performance as the quiet center of the story, the movie has some colorful supporting characters to be observed in the hotel. Pauline Collins is a jolly but opportunistic hotel owner, and Brendan Gleeson is a kind hotel doctor, and Brenda Fricker is one of older hotel employees. Jonathan Rhys Meyers briefly appears as one of usual rich hotel guests, and the movie makes a subtle point through how he can get away with his sexuality.
Deservedly Oscar-nominated for her scene-stealing supporting performance, Janet McTeer makes a big contrast to Close as a woman fully living her life as a man and husband. When Nobbs visits Page’s house, we meet Page’s thoughtful wife Cathleen(Bronagh Gallagher, who is also good during one brief, quiet shot), and we come to sense that the relationship between this unconventional couple is more than a practical arrangement between them. Later in the movie, Close and McTeer have a warm, tender moment on the beach, and we see how much Nobbs feels good for a while as doing something she has never done for years.
“Albert Nobbs” is ultimately a very sad story, and we feel more pity toward its desolate heroine who has been stifled by a gender role she never wanted but had to accept in the name of social/economic survival. Nobbs says at one point, “A life without decency is unbearable.” Well, a life trapped inside disguise is as intolerable as that, if not more intolerable than that.
What an unusual tale of gender impersonation, which occurs in at least two Shakespeare plays, and also on Bollywood screen!
SC: It is not a comedy, by the way.
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