Glenn Close, Janet McTeer in Melancholy ‘Albert Nobbs’

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CHICAGO – People who put themselves in boxes often go through their entire lives without meeting anyone who show them what it’s like on the outside. There’s every possibility that the tragically confined title character in “Albert Nobbs” would have remained in her box till her death if not for a chance encounter with someone who shows her that there is another way. The sad drama that follows charts her attempt to break free and realization that it may have come too late.

Albert Nobb’s (Glenn Close) confinement is one in which she has to hide her own gender and pretend to be a man in order to get work in a turn of the century Dublin hotel. It does not seem like she chose to disguise herself as a man out of sincere gender confusion although she has certainly developed some by living her public life as a man for years out of sheer need for employment and a roof over her head. She works as a butler in a 19th century Dublin hotel where she is admired but relatively ignored. She is a gentle, quiet “man,” the kind who gets the job done but fades relatively into the background. Most people who stay at the hotel probably never even notice him. Imagine a life in which your disguise doesn’t even merit attention.

Albert Nobbs
Albert Nobbs
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

There’s a deep, deep well of sadness in Albert’s eyes (and it’s the ability to convey that life-long melancholy that has earned Glenn Close critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination). We’ve seen stories before of people who choose a gender other than the one which they were born with but it is typically portrayed as a choice of individualism. “Albert Nobbs” is the opposite story – it’s a woman who hides herself to be a part of the crowd instead of an individual. Until someone shows her there might be more to life.

That someone is Hubert Page (Oscar nominee Janet McTeer), someone living life as a man who is clearly a woman. Some have complained that McTeer is too obviously a woman for the part to work, to which I say two things: One, you must remember that you are looking through modern eyes; Two, it doesn’t matter. Page is supposed to be “out there,” an example of a happy life that Albert wants, where it’s unimportant that she’s a woman living life as a man. She sees Hubert happy with a wife (a stellar small turn by Bronagh Gallagher) and realizes that she has placed limitations on her happiness that didn’t necessarily need to be there.

And so she tries to break them. She starts a flirtation (of the era, which basically means walking and gazing longingly) with the reticent Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a housemaid at the hotel. She dreams of opening her own tobacco shop and leaving her dull hotel life behind. But Helen does not take Albert’s attention seriously as she’s too involved with another man (Aaron Johnson). It’s interesting that this is presented not as a gender issue but as evidence of Albert’s stunted view of the world. It’s not that Helen is uninterested in Albert because he’s a woman but because he’s so bottled up and meek that he is the virtual opposite of the outgoing young man also wooing her.

Albert Nobbs
Albert Nobbs
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

“Albert Nobbs” is a bit slight for a drama and I’m not sure that Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”) was the right fit for the material. He approaches the material in a very naturalistic manner when a little bit of poetic style might have helped elevate it beyond the TV-movie approach it sometimes resembles. Garcia’s greatest gift is with actors and the performances are easily the best thing about “Nobbs.” Close didn’t quite make my top five for the Best Actress category this year but it was by a very narrow margin in a very competitive year. She’s excellent here, better than either of the two women projected to be in a contest for the Oscar in her category. She has such deep sadness, an inner monologue that she can’t even hear. McTeer matches and perhaps even outshines her and completely deserves her Oscar nod. She’s the opposite of Albert, a force of life.

The final act of “Albert Nobbs” contains a few soap operatic elements that don’t quite work for me, but if one views this small drama as purely a performance piece, it’s hard to ignore. Glenn Close and Janet McTeer have been on nearly every list of the best performances of the year and their work alone make “Albert Nobbs” worth a look.

“Albert Nobbs” stars Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, and Aaron Johnson. It was directed by Rodrigo Garcia. It opens in Chicago on January 27th, 2012. content director Brian Tallerico

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ziggy one of the best's picture


One of the best movie I saw and I think got a chance at the Oscar.

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