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Albert Nobbs

By Philip Martin

This article was published February 24, 2012 at 2:30 a.m.

Hotel footman Albert (Glenn Close) is as reliable and forgettable as an old oak sideboard in the period tragedy Albert Nobbs.

— The titular Albert Nobbs is a sad person, one of the saddest characters I can imagine. Nobbs is a 19th-century Irishwoman who has lived as a man for more than 30 years in order to escape the brutality of men.

Nobbs is a waiter in a grand Dublin hotel, a cipher who has faded into the furniture, the sort of person who goes through life unnoticed, without drawing the speculation of others. The sort of person whose name you can’t remember, who, in a time before the word attained its current connotations, might have been described as “queer.”

Nobbs is played by Glenn Close in this film and she first played the character in a play in 1982. She has been trying to bring the project to the screen since then, and in addition to starring in the movie she also serves as one of the producers and co-wrote the script with the novelist John Banville. (The character was actually created by Hungarian writer and director Istvan Szabo, who at one time was poised to direct Close in the film.) So it’s obvious that she has great feeling for the part, and her performance here is praiseworthy - understated and clean of vanity.

That Academy Award nominated performance might be reason enough to see Albert Nobbs, though it is not the only reason. Janet McTeer is also excellent in the film, playing another cross-dressing woman, a house painter who has assumed the name “Hubert.” McTeer was also nominated for an Oscar (for best supporting actress) for her role, and if you listen to the people who pronounce about such things, she even has a chance to win.

But the presence of two cross-dressing women living as men in 19th-century Dublin in one movie necessarily raises questions of plausibility, which is one of the things that argues against Albert Nobbs as a genuinely fine work of art. While the friendship that eventually develops between Albert and Hubert feels genuine and naturally evolved, the circumstances that originally bring them together (in the same bed) strain belief. What we have here is a case of fine actors locked in a screenplay that clunks and shudders.

There’s also a problem with the Nobbs character, a thrifty and industrious soul who is also criminally naive and innocent of the ways of men,despite having been a close observer of social manners and mores for decades. We are to believe that Nobbs has been crafty enough to squirrel away sufficient money to buy a tobacco shop (although he has no particular interest in or affinity for the product) yet daft enough to believe he might court and marry the young maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who would work the shop’s counter. (The question of Nobbs’ suppressed sexuality is reduced to an afterthought - should Helen learn the truth before or after the wedding becomes the prime concern.)

Nobbs is somewhat encouraged by Hubert’s example - the painter has a lovely little wife and cozy home. But the vivacious Helen sees in the reticent Nobbs only a strange little man; she responds to his formal overtures to walk together only at the urging of her caddish (and violent and abusive) lover Joe (Aaron Johnson), who suspects Nobbs might have a little money put aside that they might siphon off before they run off together to America.

And so the character study devolves into pathos, as we watch the out-of-touch Nobbs play the noble fool.

Too much the fool to actually deserve our empathy or even our respect. Nobbs ends up less a tragic figure than a bewilderingly odd one, an implausible combination of cunning, discipline and - let’s just say it - stupidity.

Albert Nobbs 86 Cast: Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson Director: Rodrigo Garcia Rating: R, for some sexuality, brief nudity and language Running time: 113 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 02/24/2012

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