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Albert Nobbs (2011)
Albert Nobbs is a drama film starring Glenn Close and directed by Rodrigo García. The screenplay is based on a novella by Irish novelist George Moore. The film received mixed reviews but the performances by Glenn Close and Janet McTeer were praised and they were both nominated for the Academy Award in the categories of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. They also received Golden Globe Award and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations. The film was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Makeup. Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is a woman living as a man in order to find work in the harsh environment of 19th-century Ireland. After living as a man for thirty years, Albert, working as a hotel waiter, is known for his extreme dedication to his job, as well as his introverted personality. Albert has been saving as much money as she can to buy a shop for himself with, hopefully, a wife by his side. Albert's steadfast work is shaken by the sudden arrival of Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a house painter hired by Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), the hotel owner. Albert is shocked that Hubert is to room with him while he works at the hotel.
Albert Nobbs will forever go down as "The Movie Where Glenn Close Dresses as a Man" -- and it should, since the characters are forgettable, Rodrigo Garcia's direction is bland, and the screenplay -- by Close, John Banville, and Gabriella Prekop -- is by turns painfully stagnant and annoyingly manipulative. Getting this film made has long been a passion project for Close, who also penned the lyrics for the film's soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated original song. But the stolid inertia of this story is so joyless that the film's sole "passionate" element is the desire to garner Oscar consideration for Close's performance.
Based on a short story by George Moore, the film tells the story of a 19th century Irish woman who has lived as a man for over 30 years, working as a servant to survive in an atmosphere that was quite unforgiving for women. Such a concept is intriguing for what it could say about both class and gender warfare, but the film is rendered with the earnest dreariness of its titular character. As Albert is dull and genial so as to deflect attention, so is the film. It functions as a straight-faced slog for the audience...before unceremoniously shifting into a pre-designed passion play that engages the viewer only by inducing groans and eye-rolls.
As we are introduced to Albert and his unique circumstance, we see the promise of a narrative that could explore a Victorian period loaded with personal secrets and societal taboos (sort of like a Gosford Park-lite). The film's namesake works as a butler at a posh bed and breakfast that attracts a wide swath of upscale clientele. In the film's first act, we are immersed into the world of this hotel, with its aging diva owner (Pauline Collins) rubbing elbows with her high-society guests while "the help" carouses below, spreading gossip about the swanky upstairs parties while engaging in some sketchy behavior of their own. These early sequences, rendered with good humor by a talented cast, flirt with the prospects of illuminating the interpersonal politics of Victorian-era Ireland, with explicit class subjugation, hidden upstairs/downstairs affairs, and the hope of progress stymied by harsh inevitability.
Unfortunately, the story quickly takes a dour, insipid turn, focusing on Albert's quest for personal freedom in the most shallow, formulaic manner possible. When he is directed to share his room with the hotel's new housepainter, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), Albert's secret is accidentally revealed in a fumbling mishap. However, he finds an unexpected kindred soul upon discovering that Page, too, is a woman living as a man -- and doing so with a carefree zeal that Albert can only imagine. Page's story -- of abandoning an abusive spouse, setting out independently as a man, and then marrying a wonderful woman who was willing to go along with the ruse -- bolsters Albert's already-dreamlike visions of independent life. Can he truly accomplish his dream of opening a tobacco shop and court a feisty young hotel maid (Mia Wasikowska) to be his willing life partner?
These questions are answered in ambling sequences of varying discomfort, since the film seems hellbent on pandering for an emotional outpouring it never earns. As Wasikowska's immature maid permits a smitten Albert to waste long-saved money buying her affectionate gifts, she also carries on a passionate affair with the film's diabolical villain, Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson), a greedy crook with designs on swindling enough of Albert's charity to make a life in New York. The screenplay's designs on building unearned tension are increasingly cloying, abandoning the observational tone of the first act for pre-ordained plot mechanics calculated to make us squirm. Its eventual tragic "climax" feels like a tacked-on sympathy play and the bittersweet denouement is intended as serendipitous but feels entirely engineered.
Close is wonderful in the title role, delivering an inward, calm, restrained performance that avoids any overt emotional trappings...except in those unfortunate sequences where she's made to speak Albert's inner monologues in stilted soliloquy. She is surrounded by a uniformly great supporting cast, from Wasikowska and McTeer in prominent roles to Brendan Gleeson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in extended cameos. Actors this strong could deliver much more than is asked from them by this shallow, manipulative screenplay, which has the potential to explore the intricacies of class and gender inequities but mires in manufactured tragedy and faux-profound moralizing.