The curious tale of a woman passing herself off as a man in late Victorian–era Dublin, Albert Nobbs generates a degree of engagement by virtue of its sheer oddness and the carefully calibrated performances of Glenn Close and Janet McTeer. But Rodrigo Garcia’s film only intermittently surmounts the limitations of the central character’s parched emotional existence and restricted horizons, and the resolutions to some principal dramatic lines seem rather too easy. Liddell Entertainment and Roadside Attractions will be able to draw considerable attention to this longtime dream project of actor, co-producer and co-screenwriter Close, but the odds seem against its breaking through beyond specialized venues to connect with a general public.
Based on 19th century Irish writer George Moore’s short story The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, this incarnation of the tale has its origins in a spare stage piece created by the late Simone Benmussa that was first seen in France and was then done in London in 1978 with Susannah York in the title role. Close starred in a 1982 New York production and has ever since tried to mount a screen version and came close about a decade ago with Istvan Szabo, which accounts for the Hungarian director’s story credit on the present film.
Threatening to become known as the modern George Cukor for his consistent skill in eliciting superb performances from actresses, Garcia only adds to his reputation here. Almost never seen in anything but the professional wardrobe of servant at the elegant Morrison’s Hotel, the Albert Nobbs known to fellow workers and the fancy clientele is a fastidious, polite, impeccably correct gentleman who says little and, off-hours, keeps to himself in a drab upstairs room where, unbeknownst to anyone, he keeps his earnings under the floorboards.
When the proprietress Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) informs Nobbs that he’ll need to share his room (and bed) for a night with a painter doing some touch-ups at the hotel, Nobbs invents every excuse as to why this is impossible. But before morning, Nobbs’ secret it out and the panicked woman, whose any chance at a livelihood in impoverished 1898 Ireland will be ruined if her secret is revealed, implores the stranger not to blow her cover.
It isn’t long, however, before the painter, Hubert Page, exposes to Nobbs a secret of his own: He’s actually a she as well. This happens so early that it can’t legitimately be considered a spoiler –it’s no The Crying Game–and there’s no way the remainder of the story can be discussed without knowledge of the twin disguises. The revelation scene is an eye-popper, with this tall, rangy individual, who’s always dressed in bulky jackets and sweaters and has a self-rolled cigarette perennially dangling from mouth’s corner, suddenly flashing Nobbs with the sight of two mountainous breasts.
The complicity of these two cross-dressers provides what drive the narrative possesses. A much more easy-going personality than the terminally repressed Nobbs, “Hubert” not only passes as a man but is married to a woman (the wonderful Bronagh Gallagher). One of the story’s dissatisfactions is that Nobbs’ curiosity over how this came about—did her friend reveal the truth before or after the wedding?—is never answered, an issue which bears on dreams that Nobbs , inspired by Hubert, now dares to entertain.
With the money she’s saved, Nobbs sets her sights on opening a tobacconist’s shop. But for legitimacy’s sake she determines to marry the most attractive member of the hotel service staff, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a flirty young thing passionately involved with Joe (Aaron Johnson), a dashing but troubled lad set on taking her to America.
After the relatively dry but passably involving initial stretch, this is where the script, written by Gabriella Prekop, John Banville and Close, begins running aground. Bedding down with Joe one moment, Helen deigns to take outings with Nobbs the next, inducing her to spend hard-earned cash on lavish gifts. Helen’s leading Nobbs on makes little sense unless Helen and Joe are planning to rob Nobbs to finance their voyage, and the whole courtship charade feels wrong for multiple reasons; Nobbs knows Helen is already with Joe and, more to the point, it reveals the ultimate narrowness of Nobbs as a character. This is someone without an inner life or emotions other than the perpetuation of the façade she has created. A brief passage allows her to sketch in how she came to such a station in life, but any sense of blood and feelings coursing through her being is missing, leaving Nobbs lacking in multiple human dimensions. The denouement also takes a convenient way out rather than truly grappling with key central issues.
As far as it goes, Close’s characterization is an object of odd fascination; with pale and taut skin, wavy short hair, stiff posture and blank eyes shot through fear, Close entirely expresses the external life of a woman for whom maintaining appearances is truly everything. But unlike the theatrical version, which was a stylized chamber piece, the film cries out for a deeper exploration of this pinched, unrealized human being.
In this regard, Nobbs becomes eclipsed by the Hubert Page character, who has traveled much further down the road to living a full, if still compromised, life. Not only does McTeer have more to play—as a man she seems like a combination of a laconic seafarer and giant street urchin—but she goes at it with real gusto, giving a pulse to the scenes she’s in that is largely absent elsewhere, even though such fine actors as Collins and, as a resident alcoholic doctor, Brendan Gleeson do offer spirited support. Wasikowska is, as always, a welcome presence, but even she has trouble legitimizing the behavior of her character in the late-going.
The opulent but intimate hotel has been warmly and immaclately realized by production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein and Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s costumes also play a key role in helping define the characters, all captured handsomely by Michael McDonough’s camerawork.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Opens: December (Liddell Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)
Production: Trillium, Mockingbird Pictures, Parallel Films Productions
Sales: WestEnd Films
Cast Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Antonia Campbell Hughes, Mark Williams, James Green, Bronagh Gallagher, John Light
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Screenwriters: Gabriella Prekop, John Banville, Glenn Close, based on a novella by George Moore, story by Istvan Szabo
Producers: Glenn Close, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, Alan Moloney
Executive Producers: Cami Goff, John C. Goff, Sharon Harel-Cohen, Daryl Roth, David E. Shaw
Director of Photography: Michael McDonough
Production Designer: Patrizia Von Brandenstein
Costume Designer: Pierre-Yves Gayrand
Special Make-ups Designer: Matthew W. Mungle
Editor: Steven Weisberg
Music: Brian Byrne