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USA 2011
Directed by
Rodrigo Garcia
113 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Albert Nobbs

Synopsis: In 19th century Ireland, a shy woman (Glenn Close) works as a butler in a fine hotel by passing herself off as a man, Albert Nobbs. So long has she had this identity, she has no emotional life, but she scrimps and saves with the ambition of opening a small shop. Then house painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) turns up and shows Nobbs there may be other ways to live. And so Albert casts her eye upon a fellow servant, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), believing the young girl may be the soulmate she is seeking.

Wow!! What can one say of this extraordinary, brave and nuanced performance by Glenn Close, who actually starred in a 1982 off-Broadway season of the play of the same name (itself based upon a 19th century short story). The project has been close to her heart ever since and getting to finally make the film, (as actor, writer and producer) and with such an accomplished cast, must have been a dream come true.

The physical transformation of Close is quite a sight to behold – although not heavily masculinized she gets away with the deception by the asexual nature of her performance and appearance. Though the voice is neither masculine nor feminine, Nobbs speaks softly and never looks people in the eye, thus avoiding serious scrutiny. Close captures the reticence, vulnerability, isolation, ambition and fear of someone described by the rest of the staff as “such a kind little man” and who seems to be much respected and to have a strong influence on them all.

What I love about this film, aside from Close’s amazing performance, is its moving, gentle and at times mildly humorous approach to a complex topic. At first we feel that maybe Nobbs is a purely asexual being who, thanks to a bad experience in her teens, has withdrawn from the sexual arena. Later we ask the question, is she in fact a repressed lesbian, who really has no idea that she is one?  It is Hubert who opens Nobbs’ eyes to this possibility. Needless to say in Victorian Ireland to be openly homosexual was beyond the pale and anyone hoping to co-habit in a same-sex relationship certainly had to carefully dissemble. But it is not just Albert and Hubert who are pretending - everyone seems to be disguising their true selves. Two upper class couples who frequent the hotel get adjoining rooms to conceal their homosexual frolics, Mrs Baker covers her lower class roots with her preening and posturing and the doctor who resides at the hotel is having it off with one of the servants.

Of the fine cast, Pauline Collins (best known for Shirley Valentine,1989) is the ingratiating hotel owner Mrs Baker, with the excellent Brendan Gleeson as Doctor Holloran. Brenda Fricker makes a pleasant return as one of the kitchen hands, with Aaron Johnson (who played the young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, 2009) as Joe, an opportunistic young fellow who joins the staff as a boiler mechanic, squires Helen, and spends much time figuring out how the two of them can exploit Nobbs financially to help them escape to America. The seemingly ubiquitous Wasikowska is perfect as the naïve but scheming Helen, whilst Janet McTeer astonishes in her sexually ambiguous and androgynous role as Hubert.

Being a period piece, Albert Nobbs could have run the risk of being stilted, but director Rodrigo Garcia handles the material with a lovely sensibility that keeps a modern feel while reminding us constantly of the fraught nature of being a homosexual, closet or otherwise, in those days. But above all it gives us a performance that I expect to see nominated in the Best Actress category of this year’s Academy Awards




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