Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) works as a butler in a Dublin hotel at the turn of the last century. His life is quiet and his ability to blend in to the background makes him exceedingly good at his job. The arrival of Hubert (Janet McTeer) into the hotel shatters Albert’s carefully ordered world and brings deep secrets to light.
There has been much fanfare around Albert Nobbs over recent months; the film has been nominated for several awards, including Academy Awards for Close and Janet McTeer. A passion project of Glenn Close’s since she played the character on stage, the actress has worked for many years to bring the story of Albert to the big screen. The film went through several casting and funding changes before it was actually filmed.
Glenn Close is fantastic in the title role. Albert both blends into the background and is utterly mesmerising. While it is easy to see that Albert is played by a woman, by the time the character actually dons a dress, the audience believes the performance so much that this simple act of changing clothes is more jarring than seeing a woman masquerading as a man. Janet McTeer is equally as great in her role as Hubert. Hubert and Albert have a lot in common, but whereas Albert’s decision to hide in plain sight comes from a place of fear, Hubert has found strength in masquerading as a man.
There are so many appearances from the cream of acting talent that it is hard to know where to start; Brendan Gleeson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brenda Fricker, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Mark Williams, Aaron Johnson and Mia Wasikowska all feature in the film, but it is Albert’s story at it’s core. The problem with the film arises once it has been revealed to the audience that Albert is, in fact a woman, and this is a secret he shares with Hubert.
The woman who has her life together as Hubert has solved many of the problems that Albert faces – should he marry, and if so, who? When should he reveal her true gender? The idea of lesbianism is hinted at through Hubert’s marriage to Kathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), but Albert appears so surprised at the nature of their relationship that it surely has never crossed his mind. Albert sets about winning the heart of Helen (Mia Wasikowska), but when their relationship starts off, it is not clear whether Albert is searching for companionship or whether he just thinks Helen is a pretty face. The story somehow loses it’s way at this point and stumbles through much of the film, it is only when Helen falls pregnant and Albert approaches her again that the character’s motivation becomes clear; before he hid his gender, Albert was viciously so he obviously longs to protect Helen from the same thing happening. The problem is that this message is buried so deep that it is hard for the audience to understand the character’s motivation.
In all, Albert Nobbs contains some outstanding performances from its leading ladies, and Brendan Gleeson, Johnathan Rhys Meyers and Pauline Collins bring some much-needed levity to the film. At it’s core, this is a tragic tale of a woman who is so badly hurt and abused that she hides herself away for most of her life, but sadly, it is so lost in a sea of bumbling decisions and meandering story that it is hard to find. Glenn Close gives the performance of a lifetime, but this is not enough to make up for the patchy script. Albert Nobbs was originally a short novel, and perhaps it should have stayed that way.