I really want Glenn Close to win the Oscar for Best Actress this year for her work in this movie, Albert Nobbs. The other nominees are Viola Davis (The Help), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) and Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn). (See the Bold Life review for each film.)
Each of the other actresses gave wonderful performances, but each of them played only one person throughout the film In Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close plays a woman, living as a man, so her character is always more than one person at a time. It’s a fascinating, mesmerizing portrayal in a film that was a risky box office bet–a period piece where most of the dramatic action is played out in claustrophobic environments and among people in a sexist, fearful, poverty-stricken society that permits freedom for hardly anyone, much less an unattached woman.
In addition to starring in the movie, Ms. Close also wrote the screenplay (with Hungarian writer Gabriella Prekop and Booker Prize wining novelist John Banville) as well as the song lyrics. It’s been a 15-year uphill struggle for Ms Ms. Close to bring the story–written first as a short story in 1918 by Irish writer George Moor–to the screen. All the writing pedigrees prove their worth in a script of exquisite depth and richness of character.
We meet Albert Nobbs first as a meek, self-effacing butler in a posh hotel in Dublin. There is never a hair on his head out of place, never an errant fork on the guest table, and certainly never the slightest bit of annoyance ever expressed to any outrageous demand by the snobby clientele. Albert does his job, as he has for 30 years, with the most punctilious attention to detail and the utmost discretion. In other words, he’s a perfect servant in the stratified society of Victorian Dublin.
One night Albert is forced to share his bedroom with Hubert Page, the big, loud dark-haired house painter who is working on the hotel, played with fierce earthiness by Janet McTeer (who is nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress). Hubert accidentally discovers Albert’s terrible secret–he’s a woman. If Albert had stayed being a woman, without a husband to support her, she’d be begging on the streets or dead. Disguised as a man, she could make a decent, albeit modest living and have a modicum of independence.
Albert is terrified Hubert will reveal his secret and ruin his life dream–to buy a tobacco shop a few streets away and be his own man. But Hubert is a good guy–and keeps silent. The next day, Hubert reveals something about himself that shocks Albert to the core of his being–and sends his life into a whole different trajectory.
All the hotel staff can see, but are keeping quiet about an exciting drama going on under their noses. No one talks about the romance that the flirtatious maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) is having with Jack (Aaron Johnson), who seduces her with promises of immigrating to America. No one warns her about what everyone knows–carrying on with Jack could leave her pregnant, and like every other low-class unwed mother in Ireland, Helen’s fate will be horrible. There’s no such thing as compassion for a pregnant woman in this heartless male-dominated society and no salvation for her fatherless child.
Albert, having acted as a man for most of his life, yet being completely ignorant of sex, fantasizes that Helen would jump at the chance to be his wife and live above the tobacco shop. He makes feeble attempts to woo her–and never has a courtship been more piteous. Sympathy for Albert’s self-delusion grows so intense it’s almost unbearable. Anticipating his undoing is as full of dread as waiting for the next footstep to fall in a ghost movie. But don’t despair completely. Even in an Irish tale, there can be a happy ending, just not the one you expected.
The film is tenderly directed by Rodrigo Garcia (Mother and Child) and so beautifully photographed, with lovely settings and costumes, you really should see it on the big screen. Even if you see the film only to enjoy Ms. Close’s genius performance, you will be glad you saw it.