A damaged woman in an age of men
To say that “Albert Nobbs,” starring Glenn Close as a woman passing as a man in 19th century Ireland, is a portrait of conflicted soul doesn’t begin to touch the murky depths of the difficult character that is the pale center of this painful-to-watch film.
Though sexual orientation is a theme the film tackles in ways both substantial and slight, that’s not really the question where Nobbs is concerned. A “boy” who turned up at a hotel looking for work at 14 and grew into the nearly invisible butler we meet 30 years later, Nobbs seems so socially awkward, so scarred by a rape, as to have no sexual inclinations at all.
The period piece unfolds in a rather posh Dublin hotel with plenty of upstairs-downstairs antics, a dose of typhoid fever, a range of assignations and all the personalities that would suggest.
But above all else, “Albert Nobbs” is a character study. And between fear of intimacy and fear of poverty, Nobbs is so emotionally stunted by the very act of living as to almost cease to exist.
Close’s portrayal is as unsettling as the character. Gestures so contained you wonder whether you actually saw movement; the face nearly devoid of expression, the voice as well; the eyes frighteningly blank; every breath held in check. This may be the actress’ most finely articulated performance, and it is certainly the most difficult to watch. It is also one of her least convincing.
Despite all the attention to detail, the character never overtakes the actor on screen, though it may well earn her a sixth Oscar nomination (“Dangerous Liaisons” and “Fatal Attraction” among that list) as the odds-makers have it.
Colombian-born filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, who first worked with Close on 1999’s “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her,” directed from a screenplay by the actress in collaboration with writers Gabriella Prekop and John Banville.
It is based on the off-Broadway play in which the actress starred in the early ‘80s, which was drawn from a short story. Close has said the character stayed with her all these years, and making a movie of it has long been her aim.
Our introduction to Nobbs comes on a typically busy day at Morrison’s Hotel, with the opening sequence giving us a measure of the strictures within which Nobbs operates -- some self-imposed, others tied to the conventions of the times, and yet more determined by the hotel’s owner, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins). Only at night when Nobbs retreats to the safety and sanctity of a private room does any personality emerge in the meticulous tallying of the day’s tips, every pence and pound recorded before being hidden under a floorboard.
The key agent of change is Hubert Page (an excellent Janet McTeer), a painter temporarily hired by the hotel. When Nobbs is forced to share a room, the butler’s secret is unintentionally revealed, leading Mr. Page to confess he is a she as well. That moment and its ripple effect -- the what-ifs triggered for Nobbs -- rule and run the rest of the film.
The ground shifts again when Nobbs learns that Page has a wife (a sparkling Bronagh Gallagher), and with that, the butler begins courting the cheeky young maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who is not quite sure how to react. One of the film’s few light moments comes as Nobbs weighs when it might be best to share “his” secret -- before or after the wedding he’s imagining.
The film’s glue
McTeer, so convincingly cocky as Mr. Page, is the film’s glue, and Wasikowska is its lyrical heart. The actress was excellent going through her own stages of repression and rebirth as Jane Eyre earlier this year, and she is terrific as a young working-class girl weighing her prospects between the tentative, formal Nobbs and the hotel’s handsome bruiser of a boiler man, Joe (Aaron Johnson).
Woven through the film are a number of other subplots, which primarily serve to lift the mood. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a local dandy using the hotel for his convention-crossing sexual shenanigans; Johnson’s Joe is an appealing dark distraction.
But the best of this lot is British character actor Brendan Gleeson (“The Guard”), charming as Dr. Holloran romancing upstairs and down. Throughout, costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud (“Indochine”) does a genius job of using clothing to telegraph the social divides that define “Albert Nobbs.”
For a film that has such an inherently restrained sensibility, Garcia, working with the keen-eyed director of photography Michael McDonough (“Winter’s Bone”), brings the period to bustling life.
When the filmmakers move into Nobbs’ isolation, though, the movie flags -- a surprise given Garcia’s excellent work on HBO’s minimalist personality study “In Treatment,” on which he wrote and directed extensively.
But perhaps it is the very nature of its central character that is the film’s problem. Nobbs is such a spectral presence that infusing any measure of life into this person is an insurmountable challenge.
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality, brief nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles