Albert Nobbs is a strange movie, lively around the edges but dead at the core. Its central character, the woman posing as a man at a Dublin hotel who calls herself Albert, is played by Glenn Close, and Close has gotten a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance. But this Albert Nobbs is not believable as a woman or as a man and not in any way an interesting character. She-he-it is an androgynous cipher we never learn anything about and cannot care about. Why did Rodrigo García, who shows no particular affinity for the material, come to direct this film?
Well, rumor has it this was a pet project for Ms. Close, who was in an off-Broadway version of the original 1927 George More short story thirty years ago. And this is somebody's example of great acting: taking hold of a limited shtick and staying locked into it for 113 minutes. For nearly all that time we have to stare at the pale, deathly, androgynous face Glenn Close has ever-so-painstakingly put together for the role. She does not seem like a man but a woman decorously dressed in a 1880's man's clothes, starched collar and black suit (and a too-small bowler hat when she goes out), a shut-down creature with all the life drained from it-him-her. A strange project this is. It is the kind of idea that works as a story or a play, but can't survive the closeups and realism of film.
The broadly drawn secondary characters give Albert Nobbs some life and make it marginally watchable, but it's a long slog. The flirty, fawning owner-manager Mrs. Baker, for instance (Pauline Collins), is breezy enough, and and Brendan Gleeson's performance as the drunken hotel physician Dr. Hollaran who dines with the guests but breakfasts with the help is mellow and present. This has the flavor of a Masterpiece Theater "Upstairs Downstairs" story gone astray. The costumes and the Irish settings are well done. But the supposedly posh guests, who include a seedy young Viscount played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, don't behave like proper people of quality but are shockingly abusive to the help and sometimes loud and drunken.
Improbably, a man is sent temporarily to sleep in Nobbs's bed, a house painter doing a job, and he turns out to be a woman posing as a man too. As "Mr." Hubert Page, played with great assurance by the admirable Janet McTeer, a working class lesbian cross-dresser who leads a happy life, actually married to and living with a sweet "femme" lesbian (Bronagh Gallagher), is everything as a character and a performance that Nobbs and Close are not. Taller than any of the men, but sporting a copious pair of breasts she flashes to Nobbs, she has confidence and swagger and has learned to live comfortably with what she is. McTeer is up for a Best Supporting Oscar, and that feels like a better fit than Close's pinched, awkward shtick.
Much too much time is spent on the affair between a girl employed at the hotel called Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and John, the strapping young man who comes to fix the boiler and is hired to stay on. Aaron Johnson, who played the young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy and the nerd who would be a superhero in Kick-Ass, is not at his best here as the uninteresting, flaky John. He looks good with his shirt off, but his scenes with Wasikowska are shapeless. When Albert begins "going out" with Helen it's the most cringe-worthy and unlikely part of this whole cringe-worthy and unlikely movie. The essence of Albert's pinched life is obsessive saving of salary and tips, stashed under the floorboards in her room. This secret and the secret of the woman's body stuffed inside the man's clothes take the place of an inner life. With this money she courts Helen and fantasizes marrying her (as Mr. Page has married) and owning a tobacconist shop. Albert doesn't understand that Hubert's relation with "his" wife is lesbian love; "he" thinks it's just a business arrangement.
The movie dare not speak about the lesbianism that in McTeer's character has found a modus operandi in this unlikely time and place and that Close's has stifled until it has become only an uncomfortable technicality. And so the movie, which uses typhoid fever to hasten things to their close but doesn't know how to finish its protagonist's story, ends without catharsis or enlightenment for its protagonist or for the viewer. This is a very sad story, but it's one that the blunt realism of the big screen images makes it impossible to identify with. A dubious notoriety attaches to this little movie because of Glenn Close's laborious but unconvincing performance.
Albert Nobbs opened briefly in NYC and LA in October to qualify for the Oscars and went into limited US release January 27, 2012.
©2012 Chris Knipp
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