Monday, February 6, 2012

Albert Nobbs Movie Review

Did anyone notice while making Albert Nobbs that the title character is just not that interesting? Didn’t it occur to anyone that a supporting character, one in a very similar life situation as Albert is not only portrayed in a far better performance but he is more vividly drawn with a more compelling history. Is this a fault of the screenplay by Glenn Close and John Banville or the short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs” by George Moore?

Close plays Albert Nobbs. This is not a Linda Hunt case of a female actor playing a male character. Albert is a woman who has been disguised as a man for an undetermined number of years, but it’s certainly long enough that his entire identity is essentially male. For that reason I refer to Albert with masculine pronouns. Only at two moments in the film did his actual gender come to the fore. Set in the late 19th century, Albert makes his living as a waiter at Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin.

The setting features a typical upstairs-downstairs divide between the help and the wealthy guests and features a cast of characters not quite as colorful and varied as an Agathie Christie story. There are several maids, most prominent in the story being the lively Helen (Mia Wasikowska); a couple of waiters including the elderly and nearly deaf Patrick and the error prone goofball Sean (Mark Williams); finally there’s the good house doctor Holloran (Brendan Gleeson) who tends to have some fun with booze and one of the chamber maids. Jonathan Rhys Myers makes a brief and pointless appearance as a wealthy hotel guest. I have to point out that his acting is on the level of what I’d expect from a teenager playing dress-up in a high school theater production.

Albert has flown under the radar as a quiet and odd little fellow. He stashes his earnings under the floor boards of his room and dreams of buying a little tobacco shop of his own where a future wife he might take would work at the counter. Things turn around for him when Hubert Paige, the man hired to paint part of the hotel, is directed to share his bedroom and he is discovered for his true gender. MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD: Hubert (Janet McTeer) somewhat improbably reveals the next day that he is also a woman disguised as a man. I recognize this development as necessary for the narrative to shuffle along to its next point, but really? In the same city there are two women who have spent many years going unnoticed as men? And they wind up not only in the same hotel but sharing the same bed? Okay, it’s a minor issue, but also a transparent narrative convenience that settled like dust in my eye for the remainder of the film.

Hubert is the much more interesting character. His origin story is more believable and McTeer’s performance is elicited much more sympathy from me. She lives in matrimonial bliss with a woman named Cathleen, a dressmaker. It’s fairly clear that they are lesbians who have found a unique way of circumventing the social mores of nineteenth century Ireland while Albert’s back story provides a curtly explained tragedy followed by his dressing as a man for the first time: “This terrible thing happened. I went around as a man and got a job as a waiter.” The problem is that there isn’t enough in the character on screen to show us what it’s like to be a woman living as a man. There is one brief scene that shows Albert putting on a dress alongside Hubert and walking along the beach. For a few moments, Albert loses himself. His arms fall by his side in a more feminine pose and he takes off running, becoming for the first time in many years the woman he really is. It is the only scene that left me with any emotional connection to the character.

Albert’s assessment of Hubert’s situation, however, is based on unbelievable naiveté as if we’re meant to believe that in addition to living as a man, he has also lived under a rock. He wonders when Hubert told Cathleen he was really a woman – before the wedding or after – and questions whether he should reveal his own secret to Helen, whom he has begun to “walk out with” once a week. It’s as if he’s never once given consideration to the fact that marriage is not, for everyone, about convenience as it would be for him. It just makes no sense. What he doesn’t know about Helen is that she and her boyfriend Joe (Aaron Johnson) are taking advantage of his kindness to bilk him for money so they – Joe and Helen – can run off to America.

The conclusion is like a big narrative cheat. So as not to reveal too much I’ll just say that a choice is made for the direction of Albert’s character that is not the logical result of choices he’s made, but a convenient turn to help the other characters complete their own journeys and provide only the suggestion that somehow it will work out for them. But if you follow through on the line of thought that the closing scene hints at, you’ll probably realize how absurd it is.

García directs without managing even a modicum of emotional resonance apart from the scene I described above. His previous two features that I’ve seen, Nine Lives and Mother and Child, deal maturely with women’s issues and show the promise of a filmmaker who might have gone on to make a film with a great female character at its center. Sadly, he didn’t achieve such heights with Albert Nobbs, which fails spectacularly to provide any hint of the woman beneath Albert’s clothes. If only he’d extrapolated an alternative story with Hubert at the center.

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