REVIEW: Albert Nobbs
Produced by: Glenn Close, Bonnie Curtis, John Goff
Written by: Glenn Close, John Banville, Gabriella Prekop (screenplay), István Szabó (story)
Edited by: Steven Weisberg
Cinematography by: Michael McDonough
Music by: Brian Byrne
Starring: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Janet McTeer, Pauline Collins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Mark Williams
Based on the novella The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs by George Moore
Every now and then, I find myself feeling as though I get myself into a rut and keep watching one type of movie over and over again, possibly even without realizing it but still getting fatigued by my usual tendencies, and so I poll my friends for their recommendations. Usually I get some fairly common movies, but every now and then, I’ll get an oddball recommendation that makes me think, “Yeah, sure, that’s pretty different!” It’s resulted in unlikely reviews such as K-PAX, Ballet Shoes, Macross II, and Oscar – all movies I wouldn’t have been likely to review had they not been recommended by friends. And so, after tiring of writing about big sci-fi epics from my seven-film review stint of the theatrically released Star Wars films, I sought out some more out of left field recommendations – this time from the friend who recommended Oscar. As far as films that aren’t big sci-fi epics go, Albert Nobbs, a film about a 19th century woman who lives as a man and works as a waiter at a luxury hotel which had just so happened to have recently been added to Netflix’s streaming library, certainly fit the bill.
The film was released during the usual Oscar-bait season of 2011 at the Toronto International Film Festival and was a passion project for its star, Glenn Close, who had also portrayed the character of Albert Nobbs on stage back in 1982. The period setting, use of transformative makeup, a cast made up of both respected veteran thespians and up-and-coming young stars, and a subject matter bound to be both intriguing and potentially controversial seemed to be setting the film up to be one that would naturally generate buzz amongst both casual and professional moviegoers who would then hopefully bring the film lots of money and accolades.
Unfortunately, however, the film was not nearly as warmly welcomed by either group. While Close and costar Janet McTeer were nominated for Oscars in their roles, as were the makeup artists who transformed them into their transgender characters, the film as a whole was largely seen as a bit of a bore, and, from what I can tell, it also failed to earn back much of the film’s budget. I gotta agree. For such a passion project as this one, and given the emotional story at the film’s core, the film that made it to the screen is admittedly a bit too clinical about its subject matter, something that my friend agreed with in discussing the film after I’d watched it. That’s a shame, too, because the core story is built on such a solid premise.
When the story begins, Nobbs has already been living as a man for a few decades and has become a respected, if curious, member of the wait staff at Morrison’s Hotel. “Such a kind little man!” one guest remarks to her companion during a fancy dinner. Nobbs lives above the hotel with all the other staff members, secluded to his own room where he’s free to be, well, open, and where he’s also been stashing some savings in the floorboards. This security is threatened, however, when the hotel owner, Mrs. Baker, hires a painter, Hubert Page, and assigns him temporarily to Nobb’s room. Nobbs is quickly found out by Mr. Page, much to Nobbs’ horror, but Mr. Page not only promises to keep his secret as well as his dreams to marry Helen, a young maid on staff, and to buy his own tobacco shop, but provides Nobbs with the encouragement to finally take those first steps into moving forward and being comfortable in life.
The unfortunate failing of the movie is to have so much of Nobbs remain so hidden, even from the audience. In fact, this is pretty much a failing of the entire film, as it never hits those emotional chords quite right enough to make us feel any sort of deeper connection to the curious characters on screen. I see on Rotten Tomatoes’ page for the film that at least two critics who thought it so clever of themselves to call the film “a drag,” but, eye-rolling plays on words aside, again, I’d have to say I agree with the spirit of that consensus. While the gentle Mr. Nobbs indeed begs for your sympathies with those sad eyes and shrinking physical presence, even his cathartic fantasies feel oddly unable to convey the same sense of joy he’s supposed to be feeling.
By the time the film is over, you really don’t feel like you’ve learned much more about Nobbs as a person than what you had known or were able to assume about him from the beginning of the film – it’s not like the gender reveal is even meant to surprise anyone in the audience, after all. (SPOILERS – Not even the characters who finally find out Nobbs’ secret are all that affected by it, and neither will the audience at their reactions with how quickly it’s glossed over before the film comes to an end – END SPOILERS!) And one can only hear so much about the same tobacco shop plans and repressed, unrequited affections toward one person before the bit feels tired. That Helen’s boyfriend is such a jerk compared to the gentlemanly Nobbs foreshadows the outcome of that relationship from the beginning. It doesn’t help that Aaron Taylor Johnson is also quite boring and struggles with his accent noticeably to even these untrained ears.
Glenn Close is quite good in her role, however, and Brendan Gleeson’s doctor character provides the film with some much needed warmth and brevity. Mia Wasikowska is fine enough as Helen, though there’s not much to the role than to make a few cute quips, feel uneasy about things, and then, finally, pout. Janet McTeer as Hubert Page (spoiler?), however, is the one who likely earns her accolades most, though, and she arguably fills out her role better than even Glenn Close, though that’s likely just because Hubert Page is just the more rounded of the characters. They work well together, however, which is luckily quite often in the film – the scene in which they see what it’s like to walk out in public as women again is probably the film’s best scene, as it’s both humorous in how curiously unnatural it looks, despite the characters biological sex, and yet it also provides us with more insight into both characters’ personalities and experiences and the ways they’ve processed them differently, all without the need to just have characters sitting or standing around and exchanging close to expositional dialogue with one another.
Albert Nobbs is a film that had great potential in adapting this story for film, and yet never fully appreciates the opportunity it had, much like its title character. (If that was by any means some intentional attempt at paralleling the story being told, then it was a misguided one, though I highly doubt it.) Though the film intelligently avoids making a freak show out of the subject it deals with, transgenderism is still one that people still don’t fully understand nor are they comfortable with trying, and yet here was an opportunity to gain some sympathy for that community by telling the story about a particular character who, by all means, was easy to see as a kind and good hearted person but one who was not likely to gain any sort of support at all during the era in which the film takes place. It’s not likely that it would have gone on to change any minds, regardless of quality, but, at the very least, it could have gained a few empathetic hearts. That the film itself is so reluctant to show that it also has one, however, is probably the biggest disappointment.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5