Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: "Albert Nobbs"

Albert Nobbs is more a parable than a person, and "Albert Nobbs" plays out more closely to a fable than an authentic tale.

Glenn Close plays the title character, a woman who has been posing as a male servant for so long in 1800s Ireland that she can't really even remember another existence. Albert (I'll refer to him as he from now on, since that's how he regards himself) is utterly subservient, deliberately nondescript and indeed seems to have no inner core to hide.

He's been playing an exterior role so long, it has become the entirety of the core inside.

It's a remarkable (and Oscar-nominated) performance by Close, who also co-wrote the screenplay with John Banville and Gabriella Prekop, based on a short story by George Moore. She manages to show us an absolutely flawless facade -- the tiny voice, the prim mannerisms, the unflappable reserve.

Physically, Close has always possessed a somewhat androgynous beauty (undiminished as she nears her 65th birthday). But even with some splendid wigs and facial prosthetics, the look isn't entirely persuasive. Albert's appearance takes on a certain elvish bent, seeming not so much masculine as entirely sexless.

As for sex, the thought seems not to have occurred to Albert. His only spare thoughts are to money: he's been meticulously saving his wages and tips in order to buy a business -- perhaps a tobacco shop, he muses. Never mind that he doesn't even know how to roll a cigarette.

Then something startling happens: Albert is forced to share his bed with a easygoing house painter who has come to spiff up the upscale but dowdy hotel where he lives and works. Albert is astonished to discover that this man, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), is also passing himself off as a man. What's more, Hubert has even taken a wife.

Soon Albert becomes obsessed with the notion of doing the same -- not for any sexual reason, but because the idea of hearth and home, with a pleasant girl working the counter at the tobacco shop, appeals to his nature. After a lifetime of fear at his secret being discovered, what Albert craves most is security.
(It seems not to have occurred to him to play it backwards, taking a husband and becoming the girl behind the counter.)

For capricious and naive reasons, Albert focuses his attentions on Helen (Mia Wasikowska), the flirty young maid at his hotel. Alas, she's fallen in with a bad sort named Joe (Aaron Johnson), who dreams of liberty in America. Joe catches the whiff of money about Albert, and sets Helen to leading Albert on in hopes of cracking his skinflint veneer.

Director Rodrigo Garcia elicits consistently wonderful performances from his cast, which also features Pauline Collins as the fussy but domineering owner of the hotel, Brenda Fricker as a cook who's wiser than she looks, and Brendan Gleeson as the boozy doctor who seems to be the hotel's permanent resident.

Yet "Albert Nobbs" can't shake the tinge of feeling counterfeit. Albert is trapped in a maze of his own construction, one he could cast off his narrow shoulders at any time he wished. The film demonstrates this itself, when Hubert and Albert put on dresses and try a day living as women. The result is perhaps the only true moment of unchecked joy in Albert's life.

As for the central love triangle, it's difficult to get caught up in since it contains no actual love. Helen obviously holds scant affection for Albert, Joe adores only money and freedom and Albert regards love the way a whale might behold an elephant it spies upon the shore: intriguing, but incompatible.

2.5 stars out of four

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