Pros: Some nice performances, especially from Janet McTeer
Cons: Clearly thinks it has a big message...but I sure didn't get it.
Apparently bringing ALBERT NOBBS to the screen was a major passion for star Glenn Close. Having seen the film, it is hard to understand why. The central character is a curiosity at best, a cipher at worst. While always modestly interesting, the film is not emotionally captivating nor does it really make a point that has much relevancy today.
NOBBS is set in 19thcentury Dublin, at Morrison’s Hotel, a nearly upscale place. We meet the various staff members who work there, in particular the peculiar looking, diminutive waiter Albert Nobbs. Early on, we discover that Nobbs is a woman disguising herself as a man, and that she lives virtually every day in near constant terror of discovery…which would lead to ridicule and loss of employment. The rest of the staff has known Nobbs forever and is generally kindly disposed to this meek little “man.”
One day, Albert’s world is rocked when he’s forced by his boss to share his modest bed with a burly house painter who has been doing some work around the hotel. And it comes to pass that Albert is discovered and reduced to blubbering, pleading pile. So the painter reveals that he too is actually a woman (Janet McTeer…in a blistering performance that makes seeing the film worthwhile). The monumental nature of this coincidence made me wonder if women disguised as men was just incredibly commonplace in 19thcentury Dublin, or if the screenwriters just thought we would accept this wild coincidence on which the entire film turns as a matter-of-fact occurrence. I had to accept it, of course…but it was momentarily laughable at best.
Anyway, Nobbs becomes obsessed with the life this painter leads…”he” is married to a seamstress with whom a home is shared and apparently a comfortable life. Albert, who has always dreamed of owning a shop of some sort, decides that he will emulate this lifestyle and find “himself” a wife. He begins to court a maid (Mia Wasikowska, from ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT…but quite wan and unlikeable here) from the hotel.
Various misunderstands ensue, some mildly humorous and many quite serious. Albert doesn’t understand the human heart and human desire very well (nor does he appear to understand real estate values or how much of the world works), and this gets him into one perplexing (for him) situation after another.
I supposed one could argue that the film is about the need to be who one is, rather than pretend to be someone else. Or how society can crush us when we can’t just be who we are. Or something like that. But the society of the film is so removed from ours; it is hard to draw parallels. Yes, gay couples are not currently allowed to marry, for example…but to draw a line from this circumstance to those of the characters in this film is too much of a stretch. And Albert Nobbs is such an odd, otherworldly character that it’s very difficult to say he/she is much like anyone we’d meet today.
Around this strange character, some interesting plot developments occur and there are some nice performances, especially the stellar McTeer, Pauline Collins (SHIRLEY VALENTINE) as the hotel proprietress and in a small role, the always welcome Brendan Gleeson…who after his work in THE GUARD this year, which the Oscars again ignored, I must call the most underrated actor in film today. Aaron Johnson (NOWHERE BOY, KICK-A*S) appears in a critical role and continues to have interesting charisma. But Glenn Close (perplexingly nominated for an Oscar) just doesn’t convince while playing a character that isn’t really believable. COULD the events of this film have happened? Absolutely. But the movie brings no urgency, no REASON for having been made. Thus, while I admired many smaller elements of the movie, I can ultimately only give it the most lukewarm of recommendations.