Telluride Film Fest: Glenn Close gender bends in ‘Albert Nobbs’

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The very first person you see in “Albert Nobbs” is Mr. Nobbs himself—or should that be herself?

The central conceit of the new movie starring Glenn Close, who first played Nobbs in a play nearly 30 years ago, is that Mr. Nobbs, as everyone calls the turn-of-the-century Irish waiter, is not what he appears. In fact, he’s not a man at all, but a woman (played by Close), passing as a man.


Loosely adapted from the short story “Albert Nobbs” by 19th century Irish writer George Moore (which became Close’s Obie Award-winning off-Broadway play “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs” by French playwright Simone Benmussa), the movie enjoyed its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday night.

The film, due out in December, raises an array of challenging questions about gender, identity and same-sex attraction.

Described as “such a kind little man” by another character in the film, Nobbs is in fact a very complicated bundle of conflicted and unrequited emotions and desires. While she struggles to preserve her disguise — a choice she made after a personal trauma, but also motivated by professional ambition— Nobbs simultaneously tries to resolve her naive feelings about desire while trying to escape an existence that is unsatisfying on several levels.

As one character played by Janet McTeer says to Nobbs in the film, “You don’t have to be anything but who you are.” But that simple statement raises countless corollaries.

Is Dobbs’ passing a temporary means to an entrepreneurial end? Has her deception fundamentally changed how she sees herself, other women and other men? And how does a century-old world handle same-sex relations, when gay marriage even today is for many an offensive concept?

It’s the kind of role that Close said she had to play before she died. And in recent years, gender-masking performances in other films have captivated audiences and awards voters, most notably Hilary Swank in 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and Jaye Davidson in 1992’s “The Crying Game.”

The 64-year-old Close, who has been nominated for an Oscar five times without winning, tried to bring the story to the screen for years, and even began scouting locations 10 years ago. While collaborating with director Rodrigo Garcia on 2005’s “Nine Lives” (the two also joined forces on 1999’s “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her”), Close decided she had found her filmmaker. Close also produced “Albert Nobbs.”

In addition to McTeer, the film co-stars Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”), Aaron Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) and Brendan Gleeson (“The Guard”).


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--John Horn, from Telluride, Colo.