For Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs” has been a long time coming for its big screen incarnation. Based on a short story by Irish author George Moore, it was first adapted into an off-Broadway production by Simone Benmussa with Close in the lead role that won her an Obie award. The actress has been a driving force behind the film adaptation, shepherding the project for 15 years, taking on the responsibilities of a producer and even co-writing the script with Man Booker prize-winning author John Banville and Gabriella Prekop. So yes, it’s passion project for Close, and it’s unfortunate that none of that enthusiasm manages to find its way to the big screen. Stodgy, stuffy and somewhat inconsequential, “Albert Nobbs” gets all dressed up but has nowhere to go.
Yes, as you might have heard, Albert Nobbs (Close) is not a man. Under disguise for most of her life, she has risen to a prominent role in Morrison’s Hotel, one of the finest establishments in Dublin where he works under the indefatigable owner played by Pauline Collins. Around her keeping things running smoothly are a small legion of fellow waits, a number of maids including the comely Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) and the new handyman (Aaron Johnson). Albert has become used to remaining unassuming, fastidiously reliable and good at his job, and is quietly socking away his earnings for a future plan that is kickstarted by the arrival of fascinating new face at the hotel.
Painter Hubert Page arrives and cuts an appropriately dashing figure for his trade, but unfortunately his work will require him to stay overnight and Albert is ordered to share his room and bed putting his secret and identity at risk. Albert reluctantly agrees and despite best efforts, his secret comes literally spilling out of his top. However, there is one more reveal to be made. Hubert is also a woman passing for a man, and the two strike up a fast friendship. For Albert, who has taken on his new identity to the point of completely obscuring his past self, Hubert opens a window to a world of possibilities. He has a wife, a home and is in a successful trade, and suddenly, Albert’s dream of opening a tobacconist’s shop with his savings suddenly becomes tangibly viable.
The character and story requires a tricky balance between transmitting the self-imposed and social repression Albert and women in general faced in the 19th century without suffusing the drama, but unfortunately, director Rodrigo García (“Mother & Child,” “Nine Lives“) can never find a thematic or narrative rhythm to keep the film rolling forward. The story unfolds at a snail’s pace and with little in the way of plotting and most of the turns of the story occurring in the final third, there is actually very little to engage with in Close’s Albert Nobbs. Though admirably transformed into a man thanks to some solid prosthetics, Close does deliver a nuanced character but one that requires the audience to patiently await subtle changes in expressions and actions as insight to her motivations and at times, inexperience.
And rarely is that wait rewarded with anything truly intriguing. Janet McTeer, however, largely steals the movie from Close with a much more well-rounded turn as Hubert with all the texture and details we wish would’ve been infused into Albert. Witty, commanding, smart as a whip and brimming with a generous heart, Hubert is everything Albert never thought possible and for the audience, is the kind of character we wish we would’ve been spending two hours with instead. There is a subplot involving a romance between Wasikowska and Johnson, but unfortunately, everything about it feels built from scraps of dozens of other lower class period romancers that it’s difficult to remain invested or interested.
In the lead up to the film there has been some Oscar buzz around Close but frankly, we just don’t see it happening (unless the field is very weak this year). Close does deliver on the gender bending aspects of the story, but García’s film otherwise is a fairly familiar downstairs drama with a twist that just doesn’t go to many interesting places. Subtle hints are thrown in throughout the film at other folks in higher society also hiding their own secrets – mostly notably in Jonathan Rhys Meyers‘ extended cameo as a viscount who seems to fancy both men and women – but these avenues are not explored as much as they could have been. With an ending that aims for tragedy but ultimately makes the entire journey we’ve taken with Albert moot, and delivers a cross-dressing drama that plays it disappointingly straight. [C]
This is a reprint of our review that first ran at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.