I’m delighted that Glenn Close and Janet McTeer have earned Oscar nominations for their work in this striking and memorable film, but it would be a shame if all people talked about were their performances, great as they are. Albert Nobbs is a first-rate film in every respect. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the work of director Rodrigo Garcia, one of the most talented—and underrated—filmmakers working today. (I wish more people had seen his last feature, the 2010 release Mother and Child, which like all his films puts the spotlight on interesting women.)
Albert Nobbs takes us back in time to the late 19th century, and a shabby-genteel residential hotel in Dublin. The atmosphere is ripe, as the establishment is populated by colorful characters, including the self-important proprietress (Pauline Collins), a well-mannered if alcoholic doctor-in-residence (Brendan Gleeson) and various servants, including the very proper butler Mr. Nobbs. Albert is conscientious but quiet, and keeps to himself: that’s because he is, in fact, a woman. Over the course of the film we discover how and why an impoverished girl decided that her best chance of survival was to masquerade as a man.
Matthew Mungle’s makeup design for Glenn Close is extraordinarily subtle. The actress’ performance is perfectly in tune with her character, tightly controlled and completely credible.
The supporting cast is perfectly chosen. Mia Wasikowska is just right as the young, flirtatious housemaid who’s hoping to be swept off her feet by a dashing, wealthy hotel guest. Instead she falls in with a rough young fellow (Aaron Johnson) who joins the staff and exploits her, as well as Nobbs. But it’s the great stage actress Janet McTeer who turns the movie on its ear in a daring and difficult characterization that I choose not to describe, in the hope that you haven’t had all of its surprises revealed to you elsewhere.
Albert Nobbs was made on a tight budget, but it doesn’t show. Patrizia von Brandenstein’s pleasing production design focuses on the hotel and its surrounding neighborhood and never calls attention to itself. One can almost smell the odors of working-class Dublin in the Victorian era.
Close earned an Obie performance when she first played Albert Nobbs off-Broadway thirty years ago. She has dreamed of bringing it to the screen ever since, and has actively worked for fifteen years to make that a reality. (She is one of the film’s producers, shares screenplay credit with John Banville and Gabriella Prekop, and co-wrote the song sung over the closing credits by Sinéad O’Connor.) Too often, the well-meaning artists behind long-gestating “personal projects” lose themselves along the way, but not this time. Glenn Close has every reason to be proud of Albert Nobbs and the work of her inspired collaborators.