BIFF 2012 #7: Albert Nobbs (Ireland/UK/Fra 2011)

Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs and Mia Wasikowska as Helen Dawes

I enjoyed Albert Nobbs. I’m not sure what I expected, but overall the film works well. It’s an oddity in the sense that it was shown in North American festivals last year in time for Oscar nominations for both Glenn Close and Janet McTeer and subsequently given a limited release in the US and Canada. Yet it has had to wait until April 27th 2012 for a UK and Ireland release. The film seems to have had some negative reviews in the US and while I don’t agree with the tone of those reviews, some of them do hone in on a central problem that I recognise.

Albert Nobbs is based on a short story by the Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933), perhaps best known for Esther Waters, his 1894 novel which became a British film in 1948. A realist writer, compared on Wikipedia with Émile Zola, Moore was a genuine internationalist writer having lived in Paris and London and is said to have influenced Joyce. The story of Albert Nobbs is set in Dublin at the end of the 19th century but was written in 1917-18. Albert is revealed to us a little way into the film as a woman who has ‘passed’ for a man in order to achieve the security and relative prosperity associated with being a waiter/butler in a small hotel in Dublin catering for a range of middle-class and upper middle-class customers. One night Albert is ‘found out’ through a chance encounter with a painter and decorator who is also ‘passing’, but who has somehow managed to have a fuller and richer life than Albert who is, quite literally, ‘buttoned up’. Herein lies the driving force of the narrative as Albert aspires to be ‘free’ in some way.

The film has been a pet project of Glenn Close since she first played the role on stage in 1982. After a one failed production (when financing was lost) to be directed by Istvan Szabo, Close collaborated with the novelist John Banville and a new director Rodrigo García, a very experienced Latin American filmmaker with many well-known US TV series in his credits. The film has a starry cast including the very talented Mia Wasikowska and a host of Irish and British stalwarts. It looks terrific and it doesn’t aspire, as I feared it might, to the kind of Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs social class interplay. This is primarily a ‘downstairs’/’backstairs’ drama. I’m sorry to say that the problem is Ms Close, or rather the make-up and costume design that is deemed suitable to make her into Albert. She does look odd, with a rigid face in which seemingly only the eyes move. Dressed formally to ‘walk out’ around Dublin with a bowler perched on her head she seems like an escapee from Woody Allen’s Sleepers or a new android that might appear in Dr Who. All this is thrown into relief by Janet McTeer as ‘Hubert Page’ who makes a completely convincing man (and woman, as one startling scene reveals). None of this is meant as a criticism of Glenn Close’s acting skills as I’m a great admirer. I just think the casting is wrong.

It would be a shame if any worries about the central role meant that audiences missed the other pleasures that the film has to offer. ‘Passing’ narratives like this have a long history and enable a discourse about gender representations from a different angle. For instance, in this narrative it’s instructive to consider all the women in the hotel and how their behaviour is altered by social class and codes of propriety. This being Ireland in 1899 religious prohibitions are also important. But male homosexuality seems less of an issue. I’d like to see the film again in order to explore these issues in more detail. I’m also tempted now to what I think was a wholly successful ‘passing’ narrative – Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo (US 1993).

Here’s the US trailer:

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