Movie Review: Albert Nobbs
The Charlotte Observer
You’d expect a movie about a woman who masquerades as a man to reveal the circumstances that made her deepen her voice, crop her hair and don a high collar to conceal her lack of an Adam’s apple.
What could her terrible secret be? What compelled her to suppress every feminine instinct and remain alone for decades, pretending to be a male waiter at a Dublin hotel?
Eventually, “Albert Nobbs” gives us that payoff. But when it comes, we no longer need to know: We have accepted Albert so thoroughly that all questions of transvestism or gender confusion vanish. He (a pronoun I’ll use for simplicity) could be any person anywhere who has hidden a true self and longs, however hopelessly, to reveal it.
The story comes from an Irish novella by George Moore, which is permeated with the longing of a person reaching out, perhaps for the last time, for companionship.
Albert (Glenn Close) looks to be 55 and lives in one room at the top of the hotel. He’s no miser, but his lone pleasure comes from adding the day’s tips to a stash under his floorboards, which is nearing the 600 pounds needed to buy a tobacconist’s shop. (The story takes place about 1900.) Then Albert meets freewheeling house painter Hubert Page, who represents his liberation and his downfall.
Hubert (remarkable Janet McTeer), whose loose smock also hides a bosom, has married a woman and settled down to a happy domestic life. Albert understands for the first time that public concealment and private freedom can go hand in glove, and he sets his sights on saucy maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska). But Helen has fallen for repairman Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson), who plans to take her to America – if they can raise enough money.
You may think you see where this plot is headed. But the script by Gabriella Prekop, John Banville and Close doesn’t follow a traditional route. Macken is a stereotype: the irresistible wastrel, ready to lift a whisky bottle or a skirt and inclined to swat men or women when he’s in a dark mood. But everyone else is more complicated, from a tippling doctor (Brendan Gleeson) to the hypocritical hotel manager (Pauline Collins).
Most movies about people passing themselves off as the opposite sex can’t sustain the illusion, but “Nobbs” does. The towering, husky-voiced McTeer never falters: Even her kindly, feminine warmth toward Albert seems like the sympathy a gentle man might show toward a female friend.
Close doesn’t merely impersonate a man, with her amiable growl of a voice and pinched walk; she becomes one. By the time Albert and Hubert don female clothes for a beach outing, trying to discover the feelings they’ve missed all their lives, they look like men in drag!
Close has worked twice before with director Rodrigo García, on “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” and “Nine Lives.” (His best movies all focus on women.) He knows when to pull back from Albert, so we see him with detachment, and when to close in, so tiny cracks in his facade become apparent: When Albert finally risks a smile 50 minutes into the picture, his face transforms.
Close is all over this movie: co-writing the screenplay, co-producing, writing the lyrics to the song played over the credits. She’ll be 65 in March, and she now works mostly in TV; she has appeared in just one other feature since 2005. “Albert Nobbs” reminds us of the skill and humanity we’ve missed, and how lucky we are to have her from time to time.