Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close), is a reserved and punctilious butler with a secret, at 19th century Dublin's Morrison Hotel: 'he' is a woman who has had to dress and behave as a man all her life in order to escape a life of poverty. When the house painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) arrives at the hotel, Albert discovers Hubert's own secret and is inspired to try and escape the false life she has created for herself. She gathers her nerve to court Helen (Mia Wisakowska), a beautiful maid in whom she thinks she's found a soul-mate - but Helen's eye is on handsome, bad-boy Joe (Aaron Johnson), the new handy-man.
Review by Louise Keller:
The extraordinary and haunting presence of Glenn Close is what remains with us in this poignant drama, set in 19th century Ireland about a woman whose livelihood depends on her presenting herself as a man. The fact that it is a man's world is one of the issues canvassed in George Moore's short story, yet the story is far more complicated than can be imagined, as the film explores the times, the situations and the characters. The sad and lonely world of Albert Nobbs is filled with secrets - secrets from the past, secrets concealed everyday and secret dreams for the future. There's a bitter-sweet resonance about the story that perfectly pitches its characters and humdrum reality as we become involved it the Upstairs Downstairs scenario at Dublin's luxurious Morrison's hotel.
When we first see Close, short cropped mousy hair, dressed as a butler, it is a shock. Stripped of any make-up or veneer, this is a brave performance. But even more impressive is the nuance and delicacy with which she embraces the role. It is understated and powerful. It is obviously a role to which she feels aligned, having played the role in a theatre adaptation over 20 years ago.
At first we get a glimpse of life at the swish hotel, with its elegant dinners, fancy dress parties and up-market clientele, demanding the best and tipping accordingly. Those hard-earned tips, counted each night by Nobbs, are hidden under the floorboards and represent the means to his dream of buying a shop. It's good to see Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) back on screen in a role worthy of her talents; here she plays the devious hotel owner Mrs Baker, who insists the casual painter Hubert (Janet McTeer, stunning) shares Nobbs' bedroom for the night. Everything changes after that night, when Hubert discovers the serious, conscientious butler who sees everything but remains detached, is not what he appears to be.
Director Rodrigo García (Nine Lives, Mother and Child) beautifully describes the reality of the staff at the Morrison and I especially like those scenes in the kitchen where they get together on a daily basis with no pretences. Mia Wasikowska is excellent as the gullible Helen, attracted by the handsome features of the apprentice boiler guy, Joe (Aaron Johnson), and who does not hesitate to use Nobbs for her own gains. The relationship between Nobbs and Helen may be the film's great flaw - I could not understand why Nobbs fails to see the flaws of this selfish and self serving girl.
Things do not play out as you might expect. There are surprises and twists in store and the poignancy of the tale is not revealed until the very end. Close is not the only one to shine brightly; McTeer is a revelation as Hubert, who has his own secrets. Garcia's direction drags at times, as a result of which the film suffers, but this is a superb drama, skilfully played, leaving us with plenty on which to ponder.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This is a dream project for Glenn Close: she has dreamed about it for decades, after first playing the role in a minimalist off-Broadway stage version of George Moore's short story, almost 30 years ago. We can see her enthusiasm and her devotion to the role - indeed, to the whole enterprise - through her meticulous, extraordinary performance. It's a metamorphosis from Glenn Close to Albert Nobbs, a double whammy since Nobbs is in fact a woman playing a man.
Close contributed to the screenplay, as did several industry friends, including Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo, who is credited with the story that carries the film. The poignant short story about an orphaned 14 year old girl left on her own and faking boyhood to take a job as a waiter to feed herself, is expanded into a more complex character story, as the screenplay explores the inner workings of a woman who has emotionally cut herself off from the world for decades - just to survive.
We forget how recently it was that women without husbands or a helping family were at great risk in our Western societies. But reminded of it, we search for decency and human kindness among the characters who inhabit that world on screen. Some do not measure up of course, but Albert Hobbs appears to overlook human flaws - or perhaps she is unable to recognise them.
But once she has made the inner decision to change her life, Albert grows increasingly worldly and desperate to pursue her goal. What if she hadn't had a goal? Would she have continued in a peaceful if repressed and secretive manner, eventually cashing in her savings for something else?
The film throws us these questions, but above all it focuses on the 'now' Albert (she doesn't even know what her real name is) and her journey.
Close is supported by a magnificent cast, with Pauline Collins as the hotel owner, Brendan Gleeson as the resident doctor, Mia Wisakowska as the maid seduced by handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson) and the amazing Janet McTeer as Hubert. Discover Hubert for yourself.
Patrizia von Brandenstein makes a major contribution with her splendid production design and Michael McDonough's cinematography is outstanding.
For all its strengths, Albert Nobbs has its weaknesses; director Rodrigo Garcia often allows the film to seem stilted and the story doesn't fully satisfy with an ending that seems too manufactured. There are times when Albert seems totally unworldly in some ways, yet at other times is more worldly; for example, the ambiguities of Albert's feelings for Helen are too opaque to be emotionally effective. Above all, perhaps, we feel cheated that we don't discover that there is something more to Albert.
The first act is the strongest, except for any scene involving Janet McTeer.
Email this article
ALBERT NOBBS (M)
CAST: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Janet McTeer, Mark Williams, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker
PRODUCER: Glenn Close, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, Alan Moloney
DIRECTOR: Rodrigo Garcia
SCRIPT: Glenn Close, John Banville (short story by George Moore)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Michael McDonough
EDITOR: Steven Weisberg
MUSIC: Brian Byrne
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Patrizia von Brandenstein
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2011