UK/Ireland, 2011, 113 minutes, Colour.
Glenn Close, Janet Mc Teer, Mia Wasikowska, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Aaron Johnson, Brendan Gleeson, Brenda Fricker, Mark Williams, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Pauline Collins, Bronagh Gallagher.
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia.
A genteel film about gentility.
Based on a novella by George Moore, Albert Nobbs is a project cherished by Glenn Close after she acted the character on stage in the 1980s. She worked on the screenplay and produced the film and offers a tour-de-force performance as Albert, a 19th century woman who dressed and acted as a man, who was comfortable acting as a servant at a hotel in Dublin (meticulous like Anthony Hopkins’ character, Stevens, in Remains of the Day). Yet, Albert had an ambition to buy and manage a tobacco shop. Having said that Glenn Close’s performance is a tour-de-force, it should be said that she is quite self-effacing as Albert.
Pauline Collins plays Mrs Baker, the owner of the hotel, a bumptious woman, fawning on her high-class guests while being severe on her staff. Amongst the staff are Brenda Fricker as Polly, in charge of the kitchen, and Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a pert young woman who hopes for better things. Into this world comes an illiterate handyman, Joe (Aaron Johnson) who takes to Helen and she to him – though, as he will state later, ruefully, that his life and his relationship with Helen is a cliché. There is a great deal of attention given to the details of life and work at the hotel, especially some of the work of the elderly male servants.
But, while Albert is short, small, rather repressed, rather unaware of the gender and sexual implications of the decision to life as a man, the other standout character and performance is that of Janet Mc Teer as Mr Hubert Page, a painter. Her performance is striking and strong and a persuasively dramatic counterpoint to Albert as they both deal with the decisions they have made. There is an excellent scene where the two put on women’s clothing (very awkwardly) and take a walk along the beach (also very awkwardly) which leads to a fall by Albert. It is quite moving.
The dramatic turn comes when Albert says that it would be good for him to have a wife. He gives his attention to Helen and invites her to walk out with him – again very genteel, especially in sitting at a fashionable restaurant, promenading, and going to look at a building which Albert would like to buy for the tobacconist’s.
The film builds up, quietly, to an unexpected climax and ending, but there is a genteel poetic justice in the way that the film and its themes conclude.
1. A 19th century novella? A period drama? Comic touches? Recreating the atmosphere of the period? From the perspective of the 21st century?
2. The Irish setting, Dublin, the Victorian era, the hotel and its interiors, the streets, the areas, the slums, the coast? The atmosphere of Dublin? The musical score and its atmosphere? The concluding song?
3. The focus on cross-dressing, gender, identity? Society and expectations? Masculine and feminine? Relationships? Sexuality?
4. The film as Glenn Close’s project, her performances on stage, co-writing, producing, starring? A self-effacing tour de force? Her appearance, age, androgynous, gaunt, short, her hair? Her clothes, the servant? The formal clothes and hat of the 19th century? The British accent? Albert’s story, England, going to Ireland, working in hotels? Meticulous service? Very proper, knowing the guests, the treatment of the guests, courtesy, waiting and serving, going to his room, privacy? The detail of the chores of the hotel? The relationship with Mrs Baker and her dominance? His life, the tips, counting them, keeping the results in the book, the money under the floorboards? Albert’s hopes? The visualising of the dreams of the shop, Hugo and Cathleen? With Helen?
5. Albert, the fancy dress party, the interactions with the doctor, disguised as themselves? The relationship with Helen, protective, defending her, dying for her? The irony of Mrs Baker getting the money? The irony of her paying Hugo to paint the hotel? Hugo finding Helen and using the money to care for Helen? Albert’s achievement?
6. Mrs Baker, her fawning attitude, society, the guests, nobility? Yet the permissive touch with Viscount Yarrell? Drawing on her Christian beliefs and charity? Her treatment of people, the boiler, liking Joe, her attitude towards the maids, to the people in the kitchen? Hugo and his painting, her wanting him back? The effect of the typhoid, the death, the guests leaving, thinking that she was ruined? The fight back? Her encounter with Joe, the fight, Albert, the death? Finding the book, the money, using it for the painting? Intending to oust Helen? The irony of Albert’s money helping Helen?
7. Hugo, as the painter, assigned to share the room with Albert, Albert’s hesitations, uncomfortable? In the bed, the flea, Hugo glimpsing Albert and discovering that Albert was a woman? Going to sleep? Albert’s fear, needing reassurances? Hugo revealing that she was a woman? The bond between the two, the talk? Hugo as a character, the story of her husband, the beatings, being with Cathleen, the love, his work, her dressmaking, her death? Getting out the dresses, the two in dresses, walking along the beach, very awkward, the run along the beach, Albert falling? Their going back, donning the men’s clothes again? Hugo and his not wanting to participate in buying the shop and running it?
8. The doctor, his relationship with Mary? Friendship with Albert, eating in the kitchen, coping with the typhoid, Albert’s death, his discovery of the truth? Going with Mary to England?
9. Helen, pert, her story, mischief in the hotel, attracted to Joe, walking out with Albert, Joe persuading her to get the chocolates, the whisky, Albert buying the hat? The humour of Albert calculating how long he could afford to walk out with Helen? Helen and Joe, the sexual encounter, her pregnancy, reactions? Hopes? Her talking with Albert, the proposal, showing Albert the nature of the kiss? The clash with Joe, his rejection of her, the fight?
10. Joe, his work, slipping on the ice, his fall, his being sacked, the arrogance of the rich man? The boiler situation, working hard, the success? Mrs Baker taking him on? His inability to write? The attraction to Helen, manipulating her, the chocolates etc? Her pregnancy, wanting to go to the US? The typhoid outbreak, trapping them in Dublin, his thinking that his life and her pregnancy was a cliché? The fight, his being responsible for Albert’s death?
11. The range of staff, Polly and the kitchen, the maids, the gentlemen servants, Sean and his black eye, wanting a drink? Patrick and his death? Traditional style?
12. The range of guests, some kind, some not? The elderly? The dining room, the meals, wanting a drink, breakfast? The nobility? Viscount Yarrell and his friends? The drink, the frankness, the keys?
13. The portrait of life at the hotel, Albert and his life, narrow focus? Yet the dream of the shop, taking Helen to the site, the explanations, his dream? Not fulfilled? The doctor commenting on the sadness of Albert’s life?
14. A portrait of human nature – differences and difficulties?