Glenn Close doesn’t play Albert Nobbs as a woman passing for a man – she plays the character as sexless. The straight-laced member of the waitstaff at Dublin’s Morrison Hotel keeps a tellingly low profile, lips sealed, spine arched, uttering few words, preferring the world to think of him – because Nobbs identifies as male throughout most of the film, I will use the pronoun “he” in this review – as little more than that funny young man in the background. (In the original story that inspired the play and film, George Moore describes him as “a queer hobgoblin sort of fellow”.) After work, he sits alone in his room, counting his money and the days. Were it not for an eventually revealed dark secret, our natural assumption would be that this man has no clue what sex is.
That Nobbs, spinning delicately inside his orbit of one, spends his days catering to the needs of the spoiled rich amidst Ireland’s late-19th century typhoid epidemic is the central appeal of the film. Few things sting the central nervous system quite like a top hat-clad mustachioed aristocrat who demands that his dirt-faced bag-handler be fired for tripping on the stairs. The hotel’s clientele are deluded beyond repair, thoroughly convinced in their own inherent greatness even as their servants drop dead from disease all around them.
Close, who co-writes and produces as well as stars, first started playing the role off-Broadway in The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs in 1982 for which she won an Obie Award. She’s obviously aged, which means Nobbs has aged, but his demeanor hasn’t, making an already odd character completely alien in nature. His pursuit of the comely and very young maid Helen Dawes (played by Mia Wasikowska, 42 years Close’s junior) is like something out of a twelve-year-old boy’s playbook: Nobbs walks around town with her, buys her expensive objects, blurts out inappropriate marriage fantasies and never once attempts to so much as hold her hand. The awkwardness is endearing, almost too much so: despite the age gap which would theoretically make his courtship unnerving, Nobbs instead comes off as a puppy dog, desperate for affection but with no clue how to obtain it.
Nobbs has some companionship in fellow woman-man Hubert Page. Veteran stage actor Janet McTeer, Oscar-nominated for a small handful of scenes, certainly looks more feminine in her painter’s getup than Close in her tuxedo (that all the young female maids are attracted to Hubert is a sly joke). But she survives as a man because of her unbridled confidence, her head-tilting, street-tough bemused survey of the world. Both Albert and Hubert were traumatized by men at an early age, and their decision to embrace the source of their troubles by essentially becoming them speaks to a peculiar sort of pre-feminist feminism, the know-thine-enemy commandeering of identity.
Gender identity is by no means the driving force of this film – the threat of whether Nobbs will be discovered is essentially irrelevant to the plot. What is relevant is Nobbs’s life’s ambition, but it’s too small, and his continued pronouncements of it too frequent, for us to ever believe he will achieve it. This world is no place for wide-eyed earnestness and innocence. When he breaks out of his room to confront Helen’s abusive boyfriend, it’s a moment of high-wire tension precisely because we are aware how little Nobbs is capable of, how small a threat he poses to the forces of the universe.
“Albert Nobbs” is a sad story, but an engrossing one, and the focus on performances over somewhat bland production values betrays its theatrical background. Between the period setting, the actors’ physical transformations and the thick accents, the movie creates the outward appearance of factory-produced Oscar prestige. But those willing to dig beneath outward appearances may yet be surprised to discover a beating heart.
“Albert Nobbs” is in general release and playing in theatres in the area. More information here.
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Written by John Banville, Gabriella Prekop and Glenn Close, based on the play The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs by Simone Benmussa, and the short story of the same title by George Moore
Starring Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson