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‘Albert Nobbs’, like its central figure, never truly lets the audience in

Albert Nobbs

Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

Screenplay by Glenn Close and John Banville

U.K, Ireland, 2011

Mainstream cinema has a difficult time tackling what some big studio executives might view as the ‘icky’ side of gender politics. Cross-dressing, homosexuality and its oft-maligned offspring themes of homo-eroticism, transsexuals, etc. These are topics which, if one is being honest, have been a part of human society for a very long time, but simply do not register in any pronounced way on the landscape major motion pictures. When word got out that a big production taking place in 19th century Ireland about a woman who goes about earning a living dressed as a man, the interest of some was surely aroused. Glenn Close taking a chance on the film by landing the lead role? Now things were definitely getting intriguing. What’s more, early reviews raved about the legendary actresses’ performance. With Albert Nobbs  set to open wide in the weeks to come, it is time to see what the fuss is about and if it lives up to its promise.

The high class hotel operated by Mrs. Baker (Pauline Caollins) is among the finest in Dublin. Everything about it is chic, clean and decorated in a manner to please only society’s upper class citizens. It goes without saying that the establishment’s reputation rests predominantly on the efforts of its staff members, with the most dedicated and respected employee among them being one Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close). Everyone loves his dutiful, precise, curt but never over-friendly service. What they do not know is that Albert is not a he, but rather a she. The secret is out one evening when a hired painter, Hubert Page (Janet Mcteer) is offered to become Albert’s bed buddy for the night. Albert’s early shame soon transforms into renewed confidence and curiosity when Hubert shares a little secret of his own: he is a woman too! Their bond is the launching pad for Albert’s desire to finally settle down with a girl, in this case fellow hotel employee Helen (Mia Wasikowska), and open up a small business,  but there is opposition standing in his way in the form of the new boiler room boy, Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson) who has also taken a liking to Helen.

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Clearly, there was a bountiful amount of potential at the outset of the film’s production to truly explore a fascinating subject that would have given viewers an intelligent, thought-provoking film had it even been set in the early 21st century, let alone 19th century Ireland! One should avoid, as much as possible, constantly scorning the movie industry for playing things too safe for the mainstream. There is a reason why it is called the ‘mainstream’ after all. That being said, there comes an unavoidable sentiment of disappointment when the closing credits arrive at the tail end of a picture that could have been great for all sorts of unique reasons, yet can only muster timid appreciation. Let it be known, Albert Nobbs is on the whole a mostly well acted, well decorated period pieced that transports audiences to a time and place which followed different norms based on class status. As a brief snapshot of how people behaved back then, and of what sort of duress those condemned to deal with their forsaken lot in life had to wrestle with, the film is rather good. Its strengths cannot camouflage the unfortunate missteps however.

“…as interesting an idea the Albert Nobbs character may have been on paper, on film he (she) does not amount to very much at all.

Much of the criticism is aimed at the titular character. Given that Glenn Close not only portrays the individual but had a significant hand into the writing process, she is doubly at fault. Few people would doubt her capabilities as an actress, her accolades, after all, speak for themselves. However, in the case of Albert Nobbs,  her double duty may have lent her to stretch herself too much. For starters, as interesting an idea the Albert Nobbs character may have been on paper, on film he (she) does not amount to very much at all. In essence, Nobbs is far too reserved a personality for there to be a genuine connection between her and the audience.  The individual’s plight and circumstances are more than worthy of a feature film, yet somehow the opportunity for an in-depth study of what makes Albert tick is criminally squandered. Close’s interpretation of Albert Nobbs is so quiet, so shy, so enigmatic that by the end of the film, it is unclear how far a road the character has travelled, both emotionally and psychologically. Worse still is the fact that the film openly affords Albert to confess her history as well as her innermost thoughts and emotions. Rather than shining some much needed light onto what actually makes this character, the audience is left with some half-explanations, like the notion that she tried to get a job once, many years ago, dressed as a man (for a variety of semi-plausible reasons) and it somehow worked…so she just carried on as such. What does that tell the viewer about her sexual orientation, or about whether or not she feels comfortable in her own skin? Another glaring example of  such missed opportunities concerns Albert’s decision to woo Helen, slowly yet surely, so that they may eventually become husband and wife. Somehow, the film awkwardly tip toes around any hints as to whether or not Albert is genuinely in love with Helen. So far as the film can tell, the reasoning behind the scheme is reduced to Albert wanting to have a woman around her shop. So this is strictly a business transaction?

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“Impressive set and costume design and memorable supporting roles cannot overpower Albert Nobbs‘ shortcomings…

In contrast, Albert Nobbs has a supporting character with her own identical secret, Hubert Page, played by Janet Mcteer. McTeer is so lively in the role, playing the part of the tall, very manly cross-dresser with a sense of gusto, pride, energy charm and wit. Here is an individual living virtually under the same circumstances as Albert (their professions differ greatly), yet has managed to find a sense of purpose and  comfort with who she is, in addition to the actual performance from actress McTeer being above and beyond the most charismatic in the entire film. How has she accomplished such a brilliant state of mind? Certainly the societal norms of the period must press down on her, at times in gruelling fashion even. Where does her unspoken reconciliation with the outside emanate from? A film that evolved around that person, titled ‘Hubert Page’, would have been amazing.

Possibly lost in the shuffle is Mia Wasikowska, who plays second fiddle to both of the aforementioned characters, although she holds her own brightly, playing Helen with a lot of heart and a fun ‘saucy’ side. She is still very young although the talent on display is simply undeniable. People had better believe the hype: Wasikowska is a darn good actress.

Impressive set and costume design (which they are) and memorable supporting roles (of which there are two) cannot overpower Albert Nobbs‘ shortcomings. Had the film been a bit more bold, a bit more daring in where it tried to take Albert, this could have been a great movie. Did the filmmakers get cold feet? Was the intent all along to preserve a sense of mystery and ambiguity about Albert Nobbs? In either case, there was a much better, much more thought-provoking movie somewhere in this script. As at stands, Nobbs has several good smaller aspects, but lacks punch for its main attraction.

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-Edgar Chaput