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Home » Culture and Criticism

21/31: Albert Nobbs

Submitted by on December 21, 2011 – 8:07 PM7 Comments

Albert Nobbs has two big secrets. One is that he's socking away money, farthing by painstaking farthing, under a floorboard in the servant's quarters, at the hotel where he works as a butler.

The other, and this really is not a spoiler given that he is played by Glenn Close (and that the performance is considered a nomination lock), is that he is not biologically a he.

As the story begins, Albert is comfortably settled into his late-19th-century Irish life (although he's evidently English; Close's accent is vague at times), serving and shining and switching out vases with impeccable invisibility, combing his hair just so, periodically squirreling another few shillings into the floor so that he can open a tobacconist's shop. Then a painter comes to the hotel, and has to share Albert's room; the painter, Hubert Page, is a man, and Albert is horrified.

Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) is also not biologically a man, and Albert is…horrified. Then, confused. Then, hopeful. Throughout, painfully naïve and stiff and real.

I can't put my finger on the problem with Albert Nobbs, which I believe opens today on the coasts, then comes back in wider release at the end of next month. I liked it right away, the way it went about setting the scene among the backstairs hotel staff; I would happily have watched Albert just going about his daily life, looking at how his profession as a servant — a job that, done well, is taken for granted, the person doing it not noticed — allows him to continue as him. Close's tiny eye-rolls at the other servants, particularly during the marmalade scene with old Patrick who's lost his hearing, are flawless.

But I've had this frustration with Rodrigo Garcia's work before; I've liked it, found it compelling, with moments of tart sweetness, but then at the same time he doesn't trust us, or the material, or something, so then there's a speech, or some melodrama that isn't interesting — he's obligated to Make A Larger Point. (It seems Close shepherded the project for over a decade, including helping to adapt the script, after winning an Obie in the role, so maybe it's a too-close-to-it issue and not the direction.) These are Victorian transpeople; I think the point comes with the meal, no? Alas, the script isn't satisfied with the day-to-day. It immediately sends Albert into a wondering, clinging tizzy, and from there into an ill-advised courtship, and then we get a typhus outbreak and a last-minute alliance between two characters who…you know, it doesn't matter. It's trying to do too much, instead of following Mr. Nobbs and Mr. Page into their friendship.

And I would watch that movie all day. Janet McTeer is completely wonderful, so substantial and stereotypically "male" with her vest and chain and scruffly hair, and she and Close have a scene together on a beach that I won't ruin for you, but the lead-up is unbelievably awkward and brilliant, and all the things they say to each other without speaking — it's so, so great. Albert trips in the sand and goes ass over sideways kettle, and just lies there, at the edge of the world, tiny next to six-one Hubert.

Immediately after that, Hubert gives a clonks-a-million speech that blurs the effect. We don't need to be told point-blank, "Please take a moment to think about what 'man' and 'woman' mean in the context of this story." We get it; we got it from the scene immediately previous. The script doesn't trust the characters, or doesn't want us to know them in case we get bored? It's hard to say; another draft or two might have stripped away some of the timidity (and had Albert just buy the damn shop already — enough with the daydreaming shots!). It's too bad. So is the icky Lilith end-credits jam. Who picked that out, the Pan Flute Defense Fund?

But I still think it's worth seeing; Close and McTeer kill it — and so does Mia Wasikowska, who has a real talent for making disorganized character writing seem more organic than it is, and she needs all six cylinders for Helen Dawes. Go, dig the performances, and focus on the moments that don't meddle with themselves.

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  • Tylia says:

    I have nothing substantial to add except that you almost owed me a new keyboard for this line "Who picked that out, the Pan Flute Defense Fund?" Had I sipped my coffee just a second in either direction, my keyboard woulda been wearing it.

  • attica says:

    I would watch McTeer eat paste, I love her so much.

    I'm a little worried that all the work Glennie's had done on her face will affect how I feel about her as a fella. Care to comment on that?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I believe she did use some prosthetics for the role. If so, they were quite seamless (forgive the pun); I did look for those differences, in passing, but as I was doing that, I wasn't noticing any work the actress had had done. I don't know if that makes any sense…short version: not distracting to me, might be if you're looking specifically for that.

  • Ebeth says:

    I hate the pan flute.

    That is all.

  • […] Albert's character; she may be a good servant, but she's…well, Sarah described her as "painfully naïve, stiff, and real." I don't disagree as an assessment of the performance, but her naïveté is taken too far; […]

  • Todd K says:

    Best Actress is looking easy to script. The race, that is, not the outcome. Glenn Close as the respected veteran and unsuccessful past nominee five (!) times over. Michelle Williams as the actress who checks the most boxes in the category since 1998 (young, pretty, chic, and still ascendant; past nominee; playing a real person; the "physical transformation" factor; originally got famous for something popular/lowbrow before Demonstrating Range).

    Plus, Meryl Streep will be around to reignite the semi-annual Streep debate. "Arguably the most impressive performance of all…" "But she's won a bunch of times already." "No, she hasn't. She's only won twice." "Then why do I remember her giving a speech nearly every year?" "Those were SAGs and Globes. She hasn't won an Oscar in almost 30 years." "But she has won twice. That's twice more than Close, Williams, or Viola Davis." "But she's in such a class by herself that she should have four or five of these, at minimum. She's due again." "Nah. Her umpteen nominations are her distinction. Spread the wealth." "Oh, excuse me. I thought it was about rewarding the best performance of the year, not about some arbitrary quota." "Well, there's no reason to get snotty about it." "I'm not getting snotty about it, and the fact that you try to shut down the debate by saying so makes you no better than the Nazis." "Both of you are on 20% warn. Knock it off."

  • Kitty says:

    Hee hee…Todd, your "Meryl Streep awards argument" made me giggle in an unseemly matter at work.

    I find the trailer for Albert Knobs Nobbs to be very tedious and it makes me not want to see it.
    I completely agree with your comment regarding Garcia seeming to not trust his work. But I will still see the film, if for no other reason than I'll have to anyway if I'm going to attempt a 2012 Oscar Deathrace.

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