Albert Nobbs, the story of a woman living as a man in 19th century Dublin, is a film that quietly and subtly explores not only gender roles, but identity at its most basic level. Based on George Moore’s novella and Istvan Szabo’s story, the film had previously been produced for the stage, starring Glenn Close almost 30 years earlier. Close’s connection to the story had her trying to get the movie made for years, as well as serving as a co-writer for this adaptation. Her transformation into the titular Albert clearly communicates her total immersion in the character.
Albert works at a hotel in which he comes into contact with the upper classes on a regular basis, wherein he is content to serve them. His interaction with them is one of great respect and deference. He exists in the background and is most comfortable in that role. It’s only when Albert is confronted with the possibility of living a fuller life that he begins to imagine more for himself.
The introduction of Hubert (Janet McTeer) simultaneously scares and inspires Albert. Hubert is the unlikely counterpart to Albert – another woman successfully living as a man, but without the fear that is such an intrinsic part of Albert’s existence. Hubert is a striking figure, tall and confident, everything that Albert is not. When Albert learns that Hubert also has a wife, he is as shocked by the revelation as he is by the possibilities it opens up for his own life.
However, Albert lacks Hubert’s understanding of people. In some ways, Albert’s biggest secret isn’t that he’s actually a woman, but that he has no idea how to really relate to other people. He has become so insulated by his own secret that he naïvely thinks he can go through the appropriate motions and secure himself a wife, never stopping to consider the actual complexities of relationships.
Albert’s plan to court and marry Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a fellow hotel employee, is simply a straightforward plan that includes buying her gifts and going on walks – the outward appearance of a relationship – without really getting to know her. In fact, Helen is already involved with yet another hotel employee, Joe (Aaron Johnson), and their relationship is everything it isn’t with Albert—passionate and reckless. Wasikowska does a terrific job of alternately showing Helen’s youthful arrogance, as well as her vulnerability.
The gender issues raised by the film are especially compelling because there are no easy labels for these characters. They exist in an unforgiving time and place; there are few, if any, options available to explore gender identity and so, for Albert, secrecy cements yet another layer of insecurity. There’s a scene that speaks to Albert’s discomfort as a woman so perfectly that no dialogue is necessary.
Albert and Hubert decide to dress as women and take a walk along the seaside. Their obvious awkwardness and stilted behavior convey most directly how much more natural they both feel and come across as men. It’s a moment that follows a heartbreaking conversation between the two, offering perhaps the clearest insight into both characters.
Close’s performance has gotten the most attention, deserved though it is. She loses herself in Albert and plays him with a detached intensity. He’s an unusual character in film and she does a wonderful job of bringing him to life. In addition, McTeer is superb as Hubert. Her physical confidence and charisma make her portrayal of Hubert the perfect complement to Albert. She is a highlight in a film of already excellent performances.
Albert Nobbs is the kind of film that rarely garners a great deal of attention. Its subject is on the fringes and without the caliber of well-known actors starring in it, it could have easily been overlooked. The Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Close as Best Actress and McTeer as Best Supporting Actress, respectively, certainly went a long way to bringing the film the praise it deserves. Additionally, director Rodrigo Garcia has successfully translated the story to the big screen and perfectly set the scene for a period drama about gender politics, not necessarily an easy sell, but one worth seeking out.
The Blu-ray DVD release includes audio commentary with Close and Garcia, as well as deleted scenes. The commentary features the usual behind-the-scenes discussion, but there are some nice details thrown in such as the fact that silent films and Charlie Chaplin, in particular, served as inspiration for Close’s portrayal of Albert.