Film review: Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs
Trillium, Mockingbird Pictures, Parallel Films Productions

STARRING Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson
Maria Doyle Kennedy
WRITTEN BY Gabriella Prekop, John Banville, Glenn Close, Istvan Szabo (story), based on George Moore’s novella
PRODUCED BY Glenn Close, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, Alan Moloney
DIRECTED BY Rodrigo Garcia

SHOT BY Michael McDonough
EDITED BY Steven Weisberg
MUSIC BY Brian Byrne
DISTRIBUTED BY Roadside Attractions

Screened 2012-01-17

Albert Nobbs is an effacing old butler working in a Dublin hotel in the 1890’s. Nobbs is also a transvestite – a woman who gets a sexual thrill from dressing like the opposite sex. The presence of a bugger like Nobbs in this House of Mirth makes perfect sense, as every character we come across is a walking sexual innuendo, transparent or not. And as usual, the whitebread white breeders are the dullest and most fascistic ones present. Nobbs hides every penny under her floorboards as she nurses the modest dream of opening a tobacconist in town, or to put it another way, ascending a tier or two on the Slave Ladder. The only thing she needs to bring this fantasy to fruition is a helper to run the shop and join her in residence above it, and so Nobbs chooses to groom a clumsy young servant girl (Wasikowska) in her selfsame hotel, taking her out and essentially “courting” her in public, which, yes, is as awkward as it sounds. A wrench in a shape of a fertilizing sperm is thrown into the gears of Nobbs’s plan, no thanks to the senseless boiler mechanic that the hotel recently employed. He just had to stick it somewhere. Nobbs does her best to contain a growingly unstable situation and has some profound moments of relief and connection with a local dyke artist (the Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer) who has successfully, and remarkably, also contained her gender behind a public mask of maleness. I was, however, jesting about that whole transvestite/sexual thrill thing. It’s not true. So far as I know. Nobbs’ reasons for dressing like a man are purely pragmatic. Well, they were when she started doing it fifty years hence…

This is going to be a tricky one to criticize, as Close produced, starred, co-wrote and even created the film’s original song. I’ll just rip the band-aid off and say it’s a numbingly dull film with uneven and downright weak performances from many players, and contains an almost total lack of anything “cinematic” – perhaps a lateral move from Garcia’s previous film, Mother and Child. Albert Nobbs was adapted from a novella by Irish author George Moore, but I take issue: included are many scenes in which Nobbs’ desires are expressed through an external interior monologue or through unnecessary dream sequences which would only be the envy of first year film students. And as clearly excellent as Close’s performance is, I find myself baffled when I think of a focus group answering the question, “Would you like to see Glenn Close play an elderly male servant in a hotel in 1800’s Dublin?” I wonder if all actors nurse a dream of playing a servant?; the ultimate role of restraint and internalization. Nobbs is a role Close first played in a 1982 stage production, in 2000 a potential film production crumbled… so I have the impression that this had been a long desired back-burner project for Close which had achieved a “now or never” status. She does excellent work and wanted the world to see it one way or another, or so I presume. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

written by David Ashley