Movie Review: ‘Albert Nobbs’

Janet McTeer and Glenn Close

“Albert Nobbs” — A Film Review by Gary Chew

Surely destined for cable on Lifetime or Oxygen, “Albert Nobbs” is now opening in theaters. The movie is a longtime project of the renowned film actor Glenn Close. She just took an Oscar nomination for her lead performance in the film. Ms. Close is one of its producers and also co-wrote the screenplay with John Banville. “Albert Nobbs” was adapted from a 1927 novella by the Irish Realist George Moore, a male* literary figure who influenced the work of James Joyce.

It was a friend of mine who jokingly mentioned once that cable TV channels marketing entertainment for women should be lumped into a single category, and also offered up a name for such a niche. It would have a 5-letter identification like MSNBC, but instead, would be called MANDG. “It stands for ‘Men Are No Damned Good,”she told me with a grin.

Any female reading this should not push my words aside just yet, for “Albert Nobbs” serves a very good purpose to identify the lay of today’s land — and why — as the sexual orientation fracas and its ramifications hopefully edge forward.

Albert (Close) is a woman in waiter’s garb. The phlegmatic Mr. Nobbs is by all exterior appearances a small, retiring man who works in a mid-19th century Dublin hotel that today would rate five stars. Certainly it was a man’s world then. Had there been buses to take, working class females would have been riding the vehicles’ back bumpers…or walking…or hustling.

Albert recounts to Hubert (also a cross-dressing woman) that she, Albert, had been gang raped at 14. The horrific event (not shown) traumatized Albert into asexuality and threw her into a life of servile isolation attending to needs of the upper-middle class. No one else knows Albert’s true gender, except maybe a little boy who occasionally stays with relatives at the hotel.

Hubert — played by Janet McTeer, who’s just taken an Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actress doing the role — learns of Albert’s actual sex only because Hubert accidentally sees Albert’s bare breasts while in the room they’re sharing. Nobbs has been ordered by the domineering hotel manager, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), to let Hubert stay the night with Nobbs in the modest waiter’s quarters. After all, the pseudo-religious and obsequious-to-guests Mrs. Baker apprehends both Albert and Hubert as male. The Baker role is the juiciest of the cast, by the way.

It’s especially apparent in several scenes that show Close and other actors playing their subservient parts with expressionless, downcast eyes. The waitpersons seem to be hoping they “aren’t present” right there on the premises among the convivial guests — until a task needs to be performed. Mrs. Baker is most strict about her help being overly deferential to patrons.

Hubert, in her closeted identity as a tall, well-grounded handyman, is married, so to speak, to another woman who lives her life as a female. On a per chance visit to the couple’s Dublin home, Nobbs sees the pair together. Thus is born in Albert’s head that she, too, might make an effort to enrich her life but maintain her secret.

Albert is responsible, hard-working, obedient and keeps a nice stash of saved-up cash under the floorboards in her quarters. She dreams of owning, one day, a tobacco shop. She longs to live above the shop with a wife, like “regular” people in Dublin did then. Mr. Nobbs is a withdrawn and reticent entreprenurial lesbian who only wants to settle down to a quiet, independent life in the sexually-repressed Victorian culture.

Another worker at the hotel suffering the slings and arrows trickling down from haughty guests, seemingly inundated in their own sense of entitlement is Helen, a young, randy maid, played by Mia Wasikowska. She is the very model of the Victorian lustful female — who goes for guys. The joe she goes for is called Joe and played by Aaron Johnson. The out-of-a-job Joe happens on to employment with Mrs. Baker by repairing her non-functioning boiler in the hotel basement just as more important people are about to arrive at the establishment.

It’s not long before Helen and the handsome Joe are lovers, and Helen becomes pregnant. All the while, Albert has been setting “his” derby — in a very proper way — for Helen, what with the waiter’s domestic-inspiring visit to Hubert’s comfy home with wife.

That’s when the “Men Are No Damned Good” cable channel concept goes full-throttle: Joe gets cold feet about being a husband and father. Helen is smashed by his turn. It also stimulates Albert to pursue Helen even more (in a proper suitor-like manner) to become her spouse and the “father” of Joe’s child. What happens thereon: my lips are sealed.

Another interesting supporting character in the picture is the hotel physician, played by the very excellent Brendan Gleeson. Dr. Halloran, along with some of the male help, is usually in his cups; a good man yes, but still with a Victorian perspective about the intimacies on which “Albert Nobbs” focuses.

The non-explicit love scenes are primarily heterosexual, except for some transient kissing between Ms. Close and Ms. Wasikowska. That afternoon moment, a on park bench, seems more educational on the part of Helen showing Albert how kissing done rather than anything related to foreplay.

Rodrigo Garcia, son of the famed Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez, draws fine performances from his mostly Irish cast, and helps bring to our time — and probably not a minute too soon — George Moore’s very un-Victorian message: what’s best for a person is being him or herself, whatever Queen Victoria might otherwise think or decree.

*Amantine Lucile Dupin (aka George Sand) made me write this line into the text.

Copyright © 2012 by Gary Chew. All Rights Reserved.


Gary Chew
Latest posts by Gary Chew (see all)