Director: Rodrigo Garcia
From the start, Albert Nobbs presents us with a challenge. Rodrigo Garcia’s film wants us to believe that someone as glamorous and gorgeous as Glenn Close can convincingly portray a man (or, at least, a woman posing as a man). Close is clearly very invested but her make-up job, like the film, only just manages to convince.
The title character of Albert Nobbs is a waiter in a crummy hotel in late 19th-century Dublin. Nobbs is one of the camaraderie of staff, a full cohort of fine Irish talent wasted on bit parts. The likes of Maria Doyle Kennedy, Antonia-Campbell Hughes and everyone’s favourite onscreen Irishman Brendan Gleeson whizz by adding little beyond whimsy. The plot focuses on Albert and his attempts to make his dreams come true, namely to start his own business and find a wife. This runs parallel to the story of hotel waitress Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson). Theirs is a tumultuous relationship and, as time passes, desperation leads them to exploit Albert’s newfound interest in Helen. It’s all very dour and drab, as the script (co-written by Close, Gabriella Prekop and John Banville) and Garcia’s direction takes a potentially probing tale of hidden identity and gender roles and, for lack of a better word, castrates it with melodrama and self-importance. A grim backstory is told but, bar Close’s interpretation of the role, we never truly get under Albert’s skin.
Wasikowska struggles with the accent, though Johnson’s is passable, but their relationship is far from the most interesting aspect of the film. That would have to be the relationship between Albert and Hubert Page. In the role of Page, a painter-decorator who is also concealing a secret, Janet McTeer is absolutely mesmerising, blending humour, pathos and strength in a performance worthy of awards. The scenes between Albert and Hubert provide some of the dignity that the rest of the film struggles against itself to find. A scene in which the two try on dresses could have been either mawkish or played for laughs, but Close and McTeer have far too much invested in these roles to make the scene any less than joyous.
Close’s passion for this project is palpable; she first played the role off-Broadway over 30 years ago, and besides co-writing and starring in it, she co-produced it and penned the lyrics for the Sinéad O’Connor ditty that plays over the end credits. Unfortunately, it’s a passion that seems to have passed by so many of those working alongside her in Albert Nobbs. She leads a film that doesn’t seem sure what to make of old Nobbs. Is Albert tragic, foolhardy or delusional? We never get a satisfactory answer. Close and McTeer make Albert Nobbs worth your while, but it tries too hard to be lovingly weepy and thus denies itself the confrontational grit that could make it truly stand out. Like its title character, Albert Nobbs works too hard at blending into the crowd.