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Non-Review Review: Albert Nobbs

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012. It’s getting its Irish theatrical release this weekend, so I thought I’d re-post this one.

Albert Nobbs is a fascinating little film that plays host to two fascinating central performances. It’s no secret that the movie has been something of a passion project for Glenn Close since she first played the role on stage, and she relishes the opportunity to bring the eponymous character to the big screen. Just as impressive is Janet McTeer as her confident and an unlikely friend. However, the movie suffers a little bit from a script that offers clever and enticing symbolism and metaphor, at the expense of offering an accessible narrative.

Close call...

The central character is a fascinating creation, as brought to life by Close. It’s been frequently remarked that her disguise as a male waiter isn’t perfect – that the character is still recognisably Glenn Close underneath the haircut and the corset. However, I can’t help but feel that such observations miss the point entirely. We know what Glenn Close looks like, and we know that she’s starring in a film as a woman playing a man.In fact, I suspect that this is part of the reason why most commentators are so quick to praise McTeer as more convincing at the masquerade – audiences are infinitely less familiar with McTeer than they would be with Close, and so she’s harder to immediately recognise.

Still, I think that Close’s portrayal of a woman masquerading as a man in old Dublin works so well precisely because the disguise is clearly tenuous, and that anybody who knew what they were looking for would be able to spot the subterfuge immediately. It’s quite telling that Nobbs has kept a steady job, living and working with the same people day-in and day-out, without any of them giving enough thought to potentially see through the relatively thin disguise. Sheltered amongst people who know nothing of Nobbs other than that he’s a “good man”, it’s quite telling that all it takes is a haircut and corset to fool the people you interact with on a daily basis.

It's all Mia, Mia, Mia...

As brought to life by Close, Nobbs is an interesting character. Effectively crafting her male identity as a response to a traumatic incident early in her childhood, Nobbs is completely ill-suited to any sort of interaction. Deciding that he needs a wife for his planned tobacco shop, Nobbs seems to zone in on the first available woman, and then financially estimates how much of his savings this courtship will cost. While on the quest for the type of companionship he can’t even properly explain, he tries to comfort a recently widowed colleague by suggesting that they could get married.

Close brings the character to life with a wonderfully restrained earnestness, to the point where it’s nearly impossible not to feel a large measure of sympathy for Nobbs. It seems that everybody else is infinitely more worldly than the poor guy, adding a wonderful dramatic irony to the deceit. Close is ably supported by a fairly strong ensemble that includes Janet McTeer and Brendan Gleeson. While Mia Wasikowska gives a solid supporting performance, both her and co-star Aaron Johnson struggle a bit with their Irish accents.

Snowed under...

However, while the performances are strong, the script feels a little unstructured and a little unfocused. While it plays well the central themes of identity and image, while also hinting at the various unwholesome activities taking place beneath the facade of civilised society, the script seems to pick up and drop its plot points almost randomly. At one point, Albert is courting a young member of staff while her boyfriend conspires to take the naive waiter for all he’s worth… and then a typhoid attack hits the hotel, leaving Albert bedridden and potentially crippling the hotel financially. And then, just as suddenly, Albert is back on his feet and the hotel is doing solid business again.

It feels more than a little unfocused as it drives towards the climax, with the movie seemingly concluding Albert’s arc at an almost random point. It almost seems convenient that Albert’s plot ends at that point, and a similar device could have easily been employed at almost any other point in the narrative. I apologise for speaking in somewhat generic terms, but I don’t wish to spoil the movie for those who haven’t had a chance to see it yet.

Close the writer...

While the script, from John Banville and Glenn Close (along with Gabriella Prekop), does wonderful work on the character interactions and hits the core themes quite well, I can’t help but feel like it’s too clever at times. The first dozen or so times that somebody uses the word “man” to describe Albert (“my good man”, “you’re a good man”, etc.) are pretty funny, but the joke slightly over-stays its welcome. On the other hand, it does give us a clear insight into Albert’s character, and provides consistent character motivation for pretty much all the cast, but it just seems a little too all over the place.

Director Rodrigo García does a great job bringing an older Dublin to life, especially on what must have been a reasonably restricted budget. As somebody from the city itself, it’s remarkable how wonderfully he uses existing locations and backdrops to evoke a period long gone. Between this and Haywire, it’s not a bad year for Dublin’s portrayal in mainstream cinema.

Who the man?

Albert Nobbs is worth checking out for the strong central performance from Close alone. The script and the movie around her aren’t necessarily as strong as they should be, but it’s to the actress’ credit that she supports it so well, and that she brought such a strong supporting cast along to help her bring her project to life. It’s a flawed film, certainly, but it’s intriguing enough to merit a look. If you can see past the flaws in the way the movie and the story are structured, it’s a pretty compelling character profile anchored in a wonderful lead actress.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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