Not long after I saw Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs, an odd little gem about a 19th century Irish woman who masquerades as a man for most of her life to improve her prospects for work, I read an interview with Glenn Close in which she said she’d based her Oscar-nominated title role on Charlie Chaplin. This was a great relief to learn, since it explained my nagging desire throughout the movie to watch Albert eat a shoe.
I mock, but lovingly. With its unpredictable sexual politics and quirky little hero/heroine Albert Nobbs has the edge of quinine, a peculiar taste that won’t entice everyone but worked for me. In its pared-down Dublin setting – most of the action takes place in and around the hotel where Albert works as a waiter – and its poignant reflection on how easily people pass unnoticed in this life, the film reminded me just a little of John Houston’s final heartbreaker of a film, The Dead. Adapted from a George Moore story by Close and John Banville, Albert Nobbs deals almost entirely with relationships within the serving class, a downstairs without barely any upstairs. Pauline Collins, an actual alumnus of Upstairs, Downstairs, plays the proprietor of the hotel. Her Mrs. Baker has high aspirations but her clientele is mostly middle class; she whips the staff into a frenzy whenever a louche viscount (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) drops by to do naughty things.
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Humble Albert is one of Mrs. Baker’s most reliable employees; there’s no chance she’d catch him throwing back the remnants of a guest’s discarded drink like the new handyman Joe (the chameleon Aaron Johnson from Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy, this time doing a brooding bad boy who isn’t entirely unsympathetic). Albert doesn’t gossip, or oogle Joe’s plaything, the prettiest maid, Helen (Mia Wasikowska, so saucy she should run off to Downton Abbey immediately) though he yearns for her. Instead he tucks away his tips under the floorboards in his neat-as-a-pin room, saving for the day when he can buy a little shop and run a business, still as a man. He’s gone too far into this charade – decades even – to alter its course now.
Nor does he want to, it seems. In an awkwardly slapstick scene, Albert inadvertently reveals his secret to a handsome, rawboned house painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who in short order flashes his/her breasts at Albert. She’s got a cross dressing-thing going on too, although the bigger surprise here is, how could anyone mistake either of these women for men, even with bowler hats, strapped down boobs and baggy overcoats? It’s Hubert who provides the turning point in Albert’s life. She’s found almost complete freedom through her masculine disguise, and great happiness with a woman who accepts both her and the situation. At the sight of Huberts’s wife, Albert’s eyes light up: maybe he could have one of those too. McTeer’s performance, also Oscar nominated, is generous, warm and alive with playful good energy. When Albert sees Hubert after the painter’s fortunes have turned, the change is crushing to him and to us.
As a director, Garcia is steadily developing a specialty for guiding the female lead to greatness. His underappreciated 2009 film Mother and Child featured stunning work by Annette Bening as a woman who harbored a dark secret that shaped her into an intensely private person. Though she and Albert share this, his retreat is pragmatic and unlike Bening’s character, rage free. He’s almost otherworldly in his goodness.
Aiming for Chaplin, Close succeeds in spades. Close takes the Little Tramp so deeply to heart she gives a performance that transfixes with its blankness, as if she’d prefer to just mime the whole thing. (With its palette of greys, blacks and starchy whites, Albert Nobbs emulates the look of a Chaplin film as well.) Yet there’s ample reason for his quiet. Albert is so afraid to be caught out he doesn’t dare let emotion – woman’s business – wash over his features or enter the voice he tries to deepen. His face is so still it seems made of wax. Albert’s prison of his own making seems something of a prison for Close as well; she holds Albert so close to her vest he remains an enigma.
I thought that was a problem. But as time passed, and the strange tonic of Albert Nobbs hung with me, my perception evolved. We’re so used to going into a movie expected to have a protagonist laid bare for us, to feel when we walk out that we know this person, especially the person whose name is part of the title (the Iron Lady, for example). The point of Albert Nobbs is something entirely different, and Close’s performance serves it completely. He is the small mystery that fuels the lives around him. He is the funny little man that others shake their heads over, “can you imagine?” This woman living as man, the mouse that didn’t dare to roar, is the mirror held up to those of us who live free, to be reminded of the awful other.
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