Monday, February 20, 2012

Movie – Albert Nobbs (2011)

The film Albert Nobbs was nominated for three Oscars (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Makeup), and it has a number of familiar faces in supporting roles, but it really is Glenn Close’s movie from top to bottom.  In addition to starring as the title character, she also produced, co-wrote the screenplay, recruited a number of people for roles, and even wrote the lyrics to the song that is performed over the closing credits.  It’s obvious that this was an important story to her.  The fact that she persevered almost 30 years in getting it made also speaks volumes to her commitment to it.  The result is an interesting character study set against the backdrop of a high class hotel in late 1800s Dublin, Ireland. 

Note - this review discusses Janet McTeer's nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  This could be considered a mini-spoiler if you have no idea who she is, or who she plays in the film.

The main story is that of the character Albert Nobbs (Best Actress nominee Close).  Albert is a woman posing as a man in order to work as a waiter.  She has been saving her tips from the rich clientele for many years, with the goal of having her own shop someday.  She now has hundreds of pounds hidden away underneath a floorboard in her room.  There are two additional subplots, the first about another woman also posing as a man, and the second about a young man and woman on the hotel’s staff that start a relationship.  Both of these subplots eventually merge with Albert’s story.

Best Supporting Actress nominee Janet McTeer plays Hubert Page, who Albert discovers is another woman in disguise.  Hubert fascinates Albert, especially the way that she goes around even more in the role of a man than Albert (i.e. she has a wife).  Albert begins to wonder if she might actually take a wife as well.  That would be expected of a man who runs his own shop.

Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) plays a young maid on staff and Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) plays a laborer who cons his way into a job taking care of the furnace.  He’s a rogue, and she would probably be called “saucy”, so it’s no surprise that the two start a relationship.  He plans to go to America to seek his fortune and he says he will take her with him.  They just need the money.  Hmm, I wonder if there’s someone around who might have a large stash of money on hand that perhaps could be conned out of it, especially if that person was looking for a new relationship with a young woman.

Perhaps you are figuring that Albert must be a lesbian in order to dress as a man and to be thinking about taking a wife.  Having seen the movie I would not agree with this.  I see the character of Albert Nobbs as asexual.  She has no romantic or sexual feelings for men or women.  She is just looking to better fit in as a man, and respectable men are expected to have wives.  Wasikowska’s character even comments on the fact that Albert’s courting is strange because they continue to “walk out” together, yet Albert has never once tried to put his arm around her, let alone tried to kiss her.

There are many other familiar faces in small roles.  Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) plays a doctor who seems to make his home at the hotel.  Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Match Point) and John Light, who played Close’s sons in The Lion in Winter (2003), play rich guests in this film.  Brenda Fricker (Oscar nominee for My Left Foot) plays a senior maid on the hotel’s staff.  Harry Potter fans will recognize Mark Williams (aka Mr. Weasley) as one of the waiters.

Finally, for anyone like me who is a fan of The Commitments (1991) all three of the “Commitment-ettes” appear in this film.  Maria Doyle Kennedy plays a hotel maid who is in a relationship with the doctor, Bronagh Gallagher plays the wife of Hubert Page, and Angeline Ball plays a rich guest at the hotel.  I checked their IMDB pages and all three have worked steadily since their film debuts 20 years ago in The Commitments.  That’s pretty damn good considering they were not actresses originally, but were picked from local Dublin music acts in order to convincingly play musicians in The Commitments.

You may be wondering if Glenn Close and Janet McTeer are convincing as men.  Close definitely has the voice down (pun intended), including an Irish accent.  McTeer has her height working in her favor, but she could have disguised her voice a little better.  Both were nominated for their portrayals.  The third Oscar nomination for Makeup is for transforming Close’s somewhat androgynous face into one that really does look like a man.  The illusion is such that when the two step out dressed as women in one scene they look more like men in drag, rather than women.

There are some moments of light humor in the film, such as the very frugal Albert finding out that women are expensive to “walk out” with and her subsequent attempt to budget for it by shortening the duration of courting from a more proper six months to a more affordable three months.  Overall, though, the tone of the film is downbeat.  Albert lives in constant fear of being found out.  The hotel staff figures that the young furnace man will end up disappointing the young maid, perhaps even “leaving her in trouble”.  There is a typhoid outbreak in the city.  And any time you are shown a character constantly obsessing over a hidden cache of money, you know something bad is going to happen to it.

As I said at the top, Glenn Close’s work, especially her portrayal of a man, is what this film is about.  She won the Obie Award (off-Broadway performances) in 1982 for playing Albert Nobbs on stage.  This is the sixth time she has been nominated for an Oscar, and the first time since 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons.  Will this be the time she finally wins?  I think only if she gets a “done great work for decades but never won before” kind of win.  That kind of sentiment never ended up equaling an Oscar for Peter O’Toole (eight nominations, no wins).

If you are looking for “hot girl on girl action” then this is not the movie for you, despite the basic premise.  I did find it interesting that it seemed like I’ve read more comments questioning Nobbs’ courting of Wasikowska’s character because of the age difference, rather than because both are women.  To me this indicates that Close did a convincing job in making her character a three dimensional person.

If you dislike period dramas then you may want to steer clear of this movie.  For everyone else, if this film sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. I thought McTeer was even better than Close here. I liked the beginning of the movie – it reminded me of “Downtown Abby”, with all the help in the house and their conversations in the kitchen. I thought the movie was a bit too messy and too much focus went to Helen and her issues with her boyfriend. I thought it was quite boring and not worthy of the performances. Good review Chip.

  2. @Dan O. - McTeer definitely had the more outgoing role, while Close played the repressed, buttoned-up character. I agree its the performances that are the main reason to see this movie. Thanks for commenting.