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Review: "Albert Nobbs"

This review was previously published in my column at Towleroad.

Albert Nobbs is story of a woman living as a man in Ireland in the early 20th century. Albert (Oscar nominated Glenn Close) serves as a waiter at a little upscale hotel. His world is so small that he barely leaves the hotel and hardly ever utters full sentences to anyone but himself. Those private conversations generally involve the counting of shillings. Nobbs' inner life isn't quite as small. The waiter dreams of saving up enough to buy a small tobacco shop and run his own little business. When he meets a painter by the name of Mr. Hubert Page (Oscar nominated Janet McTeer) whose situation is not dissimilar but whose emotional life is obviously richer, his eyes are suddenly opened to new possibilities, including romance... or at least cohabitation.  But dreams aren't easy when a flea in your undergarments can give you away, when your career could be finished with one misstep around a wealthy patron, when a stroke of bad luck could put your employer out of business, or when the woman you set your sights on for companionship (Mia Wasikowska) might not have the purest of motives in returning your affection.

You know what's just as a hard as opening a tobacco shop when you're a woman living as a man in early 20th century Ireland? Getting your dream movie made when you're an actress of a certain age in the early 21st century... [More]

Glenn Close first played the role of Albert Nobbs on stage in 1982, which was coincidentally her first year in the movies (The World According to Garp). It seems like she's been trying to bring this role to the screen ever since. It only took her thirty years to do it so she's a bit quicker than Albert.

The movie's opening gambit is a day in the life of Nobbs from first match struck to light the lantern to blowing out the candle after a hard day's work. Simple enough but the bustling hotel is so filled with vivid characters (including Pauline Collins as a flirty hotel manager, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a gay playboy, and Brendan Gleeson as a drunk doctor) you begin to worry. The screenplay by Glenn Close and John Banville which is based on Banville's play which was itself based on a short story by George Moore, isn't big on streamlining for the sake of theme or character and the director Rodrigo Garcia never settles for one tone switching between three (upstairs/downstairs comedy ala Gosford Park, period portrait, and coming out drama of sorts). The movie eventually feels as comically overstuffed as the costuming required to hide Janet McTeer's giant knockers. It needs to be zeroing in on Albert Nobbs's inner life, no matter how meager that life may be. Glenn Close has touching moments but for the most part her character feels impenetrable. Albert doesn't let people in but the actress needed to for maximum effect.

Have you ever been glad that something existed even if you couldn't wholeheartedly recommend it? Albert Nobbs is scattered and frustrating but it's also moving and the kind of story we ought to be told more often. Gay, lesbian and transgendered lives didn't begin with Stonewall and so neither did our stories. 

The waiter and the painter discover each other's secret lives early in the movie. Mr. Nobbs is found out accidentally (a flea in the corset) and filled with terror that Mr. Page will "tell". Mr. Page, far more comfortable in her own skin, merely shows with a shocking gesture aimed to silence Nobbs' whiny fear. It's impossible not to view Albert Nobbs from our modern perspective and as such it's no surprise that Janet McTeer's Mr. Page resonates the most. She is the future, after all, a woman at peace with herself, her sexuality, her body and her ruse.  It doesn't hurt that McTeer makes the most of every line reading, glance, and lopsided smile.

Oddly, it's mostly through McTeer's reactive performance as Mr. Page that we begin to understand Mr. Nobbs. Page is as frustrated with Nobbs's fear as some moviegoers may be, but she tries to coax him out of his shell anyway.

"Well  then, what's your name?" Hubert asks, extending implied friendship.

"Albert," Nobbs whispers.

"What's your real name?"



Hubert Page nods, the faint glimmer of a smile crossing her face. We get it, too, even if Albert himself is still figuring things out.

Nowadays we have names, labels and initials for everything. Should we choose to affix them, Albert Nobbs gives us ample options of L, G, B or T. Mr. Page and Mr. Nobbs might not have the language for it yet but you don't always need words to come to an understanding.

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Reader Comments (22)

The scene where Close and McTeer step "out" in dresses was great. Dig those boots McTeer wears! I am glad both women received nominations, and I think McTeer deserves to win.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

what's the grade?

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjin

It needs to be zeroing in on Albert Nobbs's inner life, no matter how meager that life may be. Glenn Close has touching moments but for the most part her character feels impenetrable. Albert doesn't let people in but the actress needed to for maximum effect.

Exactly my point and that's why to me Glenn's performance doesn't work!

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterzooey

Beautiful review, as always. But, on the contrary I felt deeply moved by Close. Yes, she is forced to wear an impenetrable mask, but there are so many levels underneath that surface. She is consumed by the fear of being discovered; a chaplinesque figure with no sex at all, very far by understanding her (and Hubert's) true sexual identity, She is like a child and, at the same time, lke a sad, tender ghost. Close is all these things together by doing very very little. Simply impressive.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterferdi

I'm naturally drawn to stories about misfits so I loved this one.

Considering that "The Help" and "The Iron Lady" are far away from being masterpieces, I'm totally suprised by the general lack of love towards this movie and specially towards Close. I think she's phenomenal. And bravo to an ensemble cast featuring great actresses in delicious roles as Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker, Bronagh Gallagher (McTeer's wife) and Phyllida Law.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I like this write-up, it's good and earnest and it makes sense. The film is a problematic one, as is Close's performance and perhaps a film in this vein shouldn't have been made because as impenetrable as Albert is I can't think of any way for Albert to be played that's NOT impenetrable. Thus, I'd understand how it could become frustrating watch Glenn play everything so Close to her breast but conversely I can't think of her making any wrong-step in the way of the character, it all rings true. So that it's a fine performance for me, and a true performance but perhaps not a rewarding one.

Glenn wouldn't make my shortlist, but she's my favourite of the nominated five.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

I'm with Andrew K.

If the character expresses very little or almost nothing about her/his inner self why the actress must express something more? This is only an acting convention and Close goes beyond it. She stay absolutely true to the character. And yes, it's through Hubert that the audience begins to understand something about Albert and, at the same time, Albert begins to know something about himself/herself. This kind of narrative and acting choices can be frustrating for the audience (see the other wonderful restrained and impenetrable perf of the year, Gary Oldman in Tinker Taylor) but this is also acting at its most deeply true and honest.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterferdi

You know I'm not a fan of Glenn Close, but her she dilivers a knock-out performance. I love that she and the movie don't want to open up the life of Albert Nobbs. Sometimes you have to be happy with what you see - telling us everything we want to know Albet Nobbs would be contrary to this character's nature. Sometimes you have to look at somebody that is heartbreakingly real and just wonder what makes this person the way she is. I don't see the tone shifting you're mentionin: I see a real person dealing of several aspects of her life and its different situations, funny, sad, social, lonely...

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I'm in complete agreement with Peggy Sue. I'm just dumbfounded by the negative criticism being thrown at Close for this performance. I don't get it. Perhaps I'm not as savvy a movie goer as others.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBilly Held An Oscar

Billy -- well i hope this didn't read TOO negative. I think she is very smart in some parts of the performance and there are moving moments but I think the excessively negative reaction in some quarters is merely brought on by how heated things get when the Oscars are going on. She becomes THE ENEMY if you're rooting for someone who didn't make it, you know?

Cal -- interesting perspective though I can't imagine watching that movie and NOT feeling its tonal shifts. It is *all* over the place. Close is pretty consistent though in her interpretation.

Andrew -- really? I'm totally interested to hear your top five then if none of them are there and Close is your favorite of the Oscar Women.

January 29, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Glenn Close was sensational in "Albert Nobbs." I hope she wins the Oscar. The rest of the field can go fly a kite for all I care. It's her time.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLenny

Lenny: Her time? I get that her eighties output is LEGENDARY, (I'd even toss Fatal Attraction a win), but compare the most recent "It's their time" win: Jeff Bridges. The ten years before the winning film released are: Arlington Road, The Muse, Simpatico in 1999. The Contender (Supporting Actor nominee) in 2000. Scenes of the Crime and K-PAX in 2001. Lost in La Mancha narrator (classy move) in 2002. Masked and Anonymous and Seabiscuit (BP nominee) in 2003. The Door in the Floor in 2004. The Amateurs and Tideland (ooh, auteur choice) in 2005. Stick It in 2006. Surf's Up in 2007. Iron Man and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People in 2008. The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Open Road in 2009 in addition to his winning film. A mix of classy and high grossing choices keeping him in the spotlight. Glen Close's last ten years of theatrical releases: The Safety of Objects in 2001. Le Divorce and dubbing for Benigni's Pinocchio in 2003. The Stepford Wives in 2004. Heights, Nine Lives and (yikes) The Chumscrubber in 2005. Hoodwinked in 2006. Evening in 2007 and, this year, Hoodwinked 2 in addition to Nobbs. The tepid reception to the film and performance as well as her flagging theatrical career mean: No Oscar.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I think it's realistic that they didn't strip albert to his bare bones to see all that's going on in the inside, he would't let that happen. I think this movie has a loyalty to it's main character, kinda like Young Adult, which is something I can appreciate.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

Nathaniel - You were not too negative - not at all. It is far from a perfect film. But the extent to which some are finding fault with her performance simply baffles me.

This happens every year - last year people went INSANE if you dare mentioned that someone other than Portman gave a decent performance. It is just the nature of the awards beast.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBilly Held An Oscar

Women aren't thought well past their prime. Close should be seen as deserving of a first Oscar as Meryl is of a third.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter//3|RT

Ultimately, Close and the film are let down by an appalling trailer and the officially released clips which out of context are atrocious. I suspect that much of the vitriol against Close and her nomination are coming from people who have not seen the film as a whole.
That said, I wish Close and the other writers hadn't tried to widen the focus with all the pointless supporting characters - bizarrely, the film would have worked better if it had been more of a vanity project not less.

The one thing I think is interesting about the element of Nobbs as a coming out drama is that it is not about Nobbs coming out as lesbian, bi or trans but rather that she fails to come out as a woman. At the start of the film it is this that she is working towards: she is the woman that she imagines as working behind the counter in the tobacco shop. The appearance of Hubert muddies the water, and wrongly suggests to Close that she can have a life without having to come out to the world. Staying in drag is the easier, though ultimately tragic, option for Close. The joy that Close takes in once again wearing a dress is heartbreaking, but even more so is the fact that at the first stumble (literally) she withdraws back into drag.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermatt

matt -- interesting take on it. I guess i got caught up in the reading of the film, which i also think is supported, that she actulaly though of herself as a man. hence more of a trans identity. but i can see your point, fully.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Perhaps that's part ot the script's problem, Nat. We both can provide evidence to support our readings.I wonder if each of the film's writers had a consistent view of who Albert was and who she wanted to be.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermatt

I keep thinking that the film could've used a few more scenes like the one in which Albert "comes out" to...oh what was McTeer's character's name again anyway? To show Albert as attempting to be as impenetrable as possible in public, but have more of those moments to give the viewer something more to look at within Albert. This is not a flaw in Close's acting, of course, but in the screenplay and direction. It is certainly a seriously flawed film, but frankly none of the other contenders aren't either.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

I agree Bruno. Any scene that allowed us to look into Close's eyes would have been welcome.

Apparently, early drafts of the script had many magical realism elements. I would have liked to have seen some insight into Alberts dreams before Hubert turned up and showed a different possibility.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermatt

Yes, Glenn Close's damn time to win the Oscar.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLenny

I thought this movie was a misfire on almost all counts. It's fine that Nobbs is impenetrable, but does she have to remain that way throughout the entire movie? Nobbs never undergoes any sort of development, which makes the story pointless. Then, there is that ending, which comes right out of the blue. The only praiseworthy aspect of this film is Janet McTeer's performance.

However, this movie did elicit a few (unintentional) laughs: I ADORED that chocolate scene.

January 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone
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