MCN Blogs
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: Albert Nobbs

Spoiler alert: Mild spoilers contained herein.

Here, I’m once again straying from the critical pack; it must be that kind of year. The response to Albert Nobbs critically is pretty dismal, for what it is. For me the film — a longtime passion project of Glenn Close, who originated the lead role in a 1982 stage adaptation — has its flaws, but still resonated deeply without being manipulative. Close delivers a spot-on portrayal of Albert Nobbs, a woman hiding from her gender in Victorian-era Ireland by living as a man and working as a butler. Enter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, who holds her own with Glenn Close and then some), another woman living as a man, whose very existence causes Albert to question the belief that his life must always be a solitary one. Here now, is a woman acting as a man, but doing so brashly, freely. Where Albert’s gender-switch has bound him into a life in hiding, Hubert hides right out in the open, having taken a jolly wife and made a home and a life with her.

Albert’s fortuitous meeting with Hubert and the subsequent revelation that Hubert is also a woman living as a man opens Albert’s mind to possibilities he’d never dared to even dream. A life where he could own a little tobacco shop, with rooms upstairs for living, with a cozy parlor kept by a charming wife where customers could gather to socialize — this, now, is exactly the life Albert’s been dreaming of through decades of button-lipped, demeaning service to the snooty, demanding asses of the upper classes, through countless evenings of saving coins under the floorboards. The woman Albert targets as his potential bride, the much younger, feisty maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska, also quite good here), though, has dreams of her own – dreams of a better life in America, free of the class restrictions that bind her so tightly in Ireland – and she’s tied her hopes and her heart to rakish, handsome, Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson) to get her there.

Joe encourages Helen to “step out” with Albert in the hopes that his lady love might persuade Albert to part with enough money to get them to America. Helen is reluctant but willingly allows Albert to spend hard-saved money on her, buying her sweets and baubles. And it’s heartbreaking to see the faintest glimmer of hope light fire in Albert’s constrained soul, as he grandly builds castles in the sky as substantive as soap bubbles. He looks at Helen and sees a potential friend, a life companion, a pretty wife at the counter to bring in the customers; she looks at him and sees only a weird, effeminate, little man she can never be attracted to, and she sees Albert’s dream of a little shop and apartment as an extension of the cage society has put around her by virtue of her birth. Further, Albert’s bland version of masculinity and sexuality holds no excitement for randy Helen, whose view of manhood has in turn been shaped by her own exposure to what constitutes gender identity – all sex and sweat, muscle and drink, abuse and apology. Helen’s view of what constitutes a “man” is so defined by the societal expectation of her class that she cannot see past Albert’s asexual exterior to see the safety and potential of the life he offers her. And even when she’s in trouble up to her eyebrows, she cannot see that Joe is not who she wants him to be, until it’s too late.

The whole thing is a very literary study in gender identity as a social construct, an exploration of what defines us as “male” and “female” beyond our genitalia. The success of both Albert and Hubert in surviving in their Victorian world as men is based solely on the exterior attributes that allow them to fit in as such. Hubert survives by adopting a swagger and bravado, and by working in a physically demanding manual labor job. Albert has survived by becoming a master chameleon, blending into the background, never speaking loudly or obtrusively, never giving anyone cause to look twice at him, never offering an opinion. Nightly, he counts his tips and adds them to his ledger, hides his treasure under the floorboards, saving up for a future he cannot yet fully imagine for himself.

All those things aside, though, direction by Rodrigo Garcia is a little uneven and obtuse, the story meanders here and there, and there’s a cleanness to Garcia’s depiction of life in Victorian-era Ireland that feels more problematic to me than anything else in the film.

The Victorian period, to me, is about the contrast between what we see on the surface and what lies beneath, and as such there was much to explore symbolically through a realistically unsanitary Victorian environment that would have better represented the inner turmoil of Albert Nobbs, who himself is hiding beneath the surface something very different from what he reveals to the world. Garcia’s Victorian Ireland is scrubbed just a little too clean – there should be rodents in the kitchen, maids dumping out pots of shit and piss from upper-class customers, dirt on the floors, dirt beneath fingernails, always in need of scrubbing; you should be able to smell the body odor and underlying layer of filth beneath the finery and brocade wallpaper here, but even when a typhoid epidemic rages through the hotel, it’s a very clean sort of epidemic. Actually, having seen Andrea Arnold’s take on Wuthering Heights at Toronto this year, I’d have liked to have seen what she would have done with this world and this material.

A good deal of the critical set seem turned off by Close’s buttoned-down performance, which is a little surprising to me considering that this is a story about a woman living as a man who’s completely shut herself down emotionally and disconnected from the rest of humanity. Close doesn’t hit you over the head with the depth of Albert’s soul-pain; the most important things in this film are not the things shown you in the film, but what those things imply. The emotions and inner turmoil of Albert Nobbs, the movie — much like Albert Nobbs, the character — are buried, camouflaged, like Nobbs himself, into the surroundings. But this is a smart and richly layered film, and if you take your time with it, pay attention to all the subtle nuances, and allow it to flow over you, it’s an emotionally rewarding, tragic tale.

Be Sociable, Share!

3 Responses to “Review: Albert Nobbs”

  1. Gary Stewart says:

    Where it this film playing?I live at
    tamborine Closest theatre please and times.

  2. Gary Stewart says:

    Where is this showing ? I live at
    Mt amborine and need the closest please. What dates and what times?
    Many thanks
    Gary Stewart

  3. Mark Stitham says:

    a cogent review. Close has never been a favorite of mine [Fatal Attraction was over-the-top] but she nails this. As an actor I get to vote this week in the SAG Awards and she’s getting my best actress nod.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon