Review: Albert Nobbs

A shop of one's own: Glenn Close and Janet McTeer seek independence along radically different paths in "Albert Nobbs."

Review by Elaine!

Somewhere in the first half of “Albert Nobbs,” the Morrison Hotel in Dublin throws its annual costume ball. Gentlemen dressed as ladies dance with ladies dressed as gentlemen, while in the corner, an odd, little waiter looks on silently. Little do any of the people carousing in the room know that this man, Albert Nobbs, knows the meaning of costume ball far better than any of them.

Because in fact, Albert Nobbs is a woman. Having posed as a man for over thirty years, Nobbs (Glenn Close) is in some ways the perfect waiter, always on time and knowing exactly what each guest prefers. He passes through life noiselessly, and much of the time blinking is his only reaction to the busy world around him. All of this changes when Albert meets Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter hired to repair the hotel. When Albert is forced to share his room with Hubert, his secret is unveiled. Panicking, Albert spends the next day begging Hubert to keep his secret, until Hubert reveals that he too, is a woman.

While all of this may seem unnerving or outrageous, the movie uses this premise to explore competing ideas of identity and masculinity. Both Albert and Hubert became men to escape male abuse but inhabit their masculine identities in opposite ways. While Albert uses masculinity to escape undetected from the world, acting out a pale imitation of what he perceives to be male behavior, Hubert embraces manhood with open arms, smoking, drinking, walking and even taking a loving wife (Bronagh Gallagher).

It is this last facet of Hubert’s life that most fascinates Albert (and us, really). Under Hubert’s guidance and support, Albert slowly begins to realize that he, too, could become a married man. He identifies Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a pretty, flirtatious maid at the hotel, as his future companion, and sets out to woo her. However, Helen is already having an affair with Joe Mackis (Aaron Johnson), an illiterate, working class young man recently hired by the hotel. While Helen initially rejects Albert’s invitation to “walk out,” Joe convinces her to go out with him, hoping that Albert can supply them with the money to immigrate to America.

As this bizarre love triangle of sorts plays out, we come to realize that just as Albert does not completely grasp his masculine identity, he also does not quite understand love, companionship and marriage. To him, Helen is the perfect candidate to help him fulfill his dream of running a shop, an idea utterly removed from Helen herself. However well intentioned and kind Albert may be, his ultimate tragedy lies in his inability to grasp the depth and the nuance of human relations, to understand humanity beyond his quiet calculation and calm perseverance. Wearing a bowler hat and carrying a cane, Nobbs is a Chaplinesque figure, and like the Little Tramp, he strives for something better than what he has been given. However, while Chaplin’s antics were meant to draw laughter and bring hope to the little guy, Nobbs’ sad parody of masculinity evokes only compassion and pity as we see a woman trapped in what was her only escape.

Albert is not alone, however, and the movie offers a thoughtful, revealing look at the lot of women in late-nineteenth century Ireland through each of its female characters. Albert, Hubert, Helen and even the domineering owner of the hotel, Mrs. Baker (a hilariously irritating Pauline Collins) each represent a different way women survived (or not) in those times.

In some ways, “Albert Nobbs” operates on some of our classic stereotypes: the gossiping, toady landlady, the handsome, no-good young man who abandons the flirtatious maid after “putting her in the family way,” (in a classic Victorian euphemism). But the movie harnesses these well known images to weave a vibrant tableau of 19th-century Ireland while simultaneously offering a refreshing exploration of that world. The supporting characters, including Brendan “Mad-Eye Moody” Gleeson and Mark “Arthur Weasley” Williams, help bring this to life, adding sparks of humor and energy that make us want to stay in the funny, ordered world of the hotel.

Though McTeer looks a little bit too much like a man for comfort and Close hovers somewhere in between man and woman, the two are simply inspiring in their respective roles. Close brings a quiet radiance to Albert’s unhappy life, while McTeer complements her perfectly with her physicality and confidence. Wasikowska and Johnson round up the principal cast by putting in solid, well-crafted performances as young, uneducated members of the working class with big dreams and rough edges. “Albert Nobbs,” nominated for three Oscars (including Best Actress and Supporting Actress for Close and McTeer), is too neat in the end to be a great film, but it offers a vivid portrait of its era and a moving meditation on fundamental questions of identity and humanity.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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