After I finished watching Albert Nobbs, I wondered if the fact that the main character was a woman passing as a man would have made any difference to the story itself. In other words, if Albert really HAD been a man, would it had made the story more tragic? I think if we got rid of the gender-bending aspect of the story, Albert Nobbs would have been a somber character study of a deeply repressed man. However, because the main issue is that Albert is really a woman in drag, it gives the story an added but not overwhelming twist.
Albert (Glenn Close) is the model of efficiency and discretion as a waiter at a Dublin hotel which I imagine has seen better days. While its clientele has the occasional Viscount, it isn't exactly the Irish version of the Ritz or Waldorf (or my idea of posh, the Doubletree--what can I say, I'm middle-class). Albert is a quiet man who keeps to himself a lot, but he is secretly squirreling away his money. He dreams of opening up a tobacco shop and is coming closer to having enough to buy one.
However, there is a hitch, one that we discover when painter Hubert Page comes late one night and is told to share a room with Albert. Hubert (and the audience) discovers that Albert is really a woman! Hubert appears more amused than shocked by this discovery, but Albert is all but falling apart. Hubert's nonchalant manner is quickly uncovered (no pun intended): he shows Albert that he has larger breasts than he does. That's right: Hubert is ALSO a woman!
Albert is both horrified and intrigued by Hubert's successful cross-dressing. However, there are other things going on at Morrison's Hotel. Maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a vivacious, flirtatious young thing, has fallen for Irish rogue/handyman Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson). He is a man who lives by his wits and loves in a fly-by-night manner, and soon Helen falls under his spell. Joe wants to go to America, but doesn't have the money for voyage even in steerage. With the promise of taking her with him, Joe gets Helen to agree to be courted by Albert.
Albert, becoming entranced with the idea that he might have a new life with a new wife (not unlike Hubert, who amazingly is married to a biological woman), had settled on Helen. Helen isn't at first keen on any of this, but she can be bought with nice things. Albert also has an ulterior motive: marriage will keep his cover.
Helen, however, gets knocked up. Despite this, she still rejects Albert's proposals, and we end Albert Nobbs with him gone, Hubert's wife dead of typhoid, and Helen an unwed mother. Still, we do end with a faint glimmer of hope.
If anything, Albert Nobbs is a showcase for the formidable acting talents of both Glenn Close and especially Janet McTeer. Close plays Albert as a person (it is hard to say 'man' or 'woman') who is so afraid of being discovered that he decided long ago that it was best to work at being inconspicuous. Sometimes, I will grant, that Close's blank, almost mummified facial expression forces one to suppress the giggles, but I will say that this might have been the intention. Close's performance is excellent: she plays Albert as not just a woman passing for a man (and being mostly successful), but as a person who has locked herself into a fantasy world. When we see how she imagines the tobacco shop, there is a light in the eyes that expresses so much of the yearning for happiness she as Albert has long denied herself.
It really is McTeer who runs away with the film. She is more mannish in her behavior as Hubert. While Close's Albert at times both physically and vocally on occasion appears to be a woman, McTeer's body movement and voice is more convincing in her efforts to be masculine. She moves with no feminine grace but with the confidence of a working man, and while it is clear she's a woman, McTeer never drops the pretense that in Hubert's mind, she is a man.
We see this perfectly after Hubert has lost his wife. Nobbs goes to their home to see if they are still alive. To see what being a woman is like, they don dresses for probably the first time in years if not decades. The scene plays almost as if they, dressed as women, are in drag then rather than wearing trousers.
It is also in this scene where McTeer, describing the loss of his Cathleen, gives Hubert a sadness that makes the scene more powerful. It is a simply brilliant performance.
As one who reads this site knows, my love for Mia Wasikowska knows no bounds. She is simply one of if not the best young actress working today, and in Albert Nobbs we see more of her range. Her Helen is a shameless flirt, a bit of a golddigger, but one who is also not immune from falling for the wrong guy when the better prospect is staring her in the face (sometimes literally). I've heard her with an American accent (The Kids Are All Right), a British accent (Jane Eyre), and now an Irish accent. She IS our generation's Meryl Streep and hope she soon has a star-making breakout role her talents demand. She has us run through a range of emotions: fondness at her joie de vivre, dislike at how she manipulates Albert, sadness at how she is manipulated, and sorrow seeing her with a child, no husband, and close to being thrown out.
Johnson has earned my dislike for Kick-Ass (though I congratulate him for getting the accent right--like Wasikowska). Still, we knew from the get-go that Joe was going to be nothing but trouble, and his performance was exactly what was needed: someone who could charm the pantaloons off a girl but whom we should have known was simply too selfish to be any good.
Director Rodrigo Garcia kept the story flowing (even if at times the film could have benefited from having a little bit more lightness rather than being so heavy in its somber tone). In the technical aspects the set designs and costumes were good in the Downton Abbey-like atmosphere they created, but given how Morrison's was, I did wonder whether the Viscount (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) was slumming it a bit to be staying at a place that didn't look all that posh.
Albert Nobbs is a sad film, and I think it was meant to be that way. This tale of woe of a woman who has dived into her 'role' as a man so deeply that she thinks of herself as "Albert" and "Albert" only does have one or two curiosities. For example, how is it that no one ever wondered how Albert might be a little strange? Furthermore, the character of Cathleen is confusing. How did Mrs. Page NOT realize Hubert was a woman? She either was a lesbian, extremely understanding, or just incredibly stupid to never know or realize that Hubert had bigger breasts than she did. The character of Viscount (who to put it delicately, appears to be a fan of Oscar Wilde) appears to be more a nice cameo than anything important to the plot.
However, I found Albert Nobbs entertaining and a thought-provoking film about a person's true identity: their gender or how they see each other. Granted, whether "Albert" actually fell in love with Helen or with the idea of Helen is never answered, but despite the flaws it has, Albert Nobbs is a great showcase for talented actresses Close, McTeer, and Wasikowska--no matter what they wear.