Manly, yes, but you'll like it, too
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan. 27, 2012
"Albert Nobbs" began as a short story and then as a play, and it's in those contexts that it is best appreciated. A delicate, closely observed chamber piece, this affecting portrait of longing, lying and leading double lives in 19th-century Ireland sneaks up on the audience with the quiet discretion of the enigmatic protagonist at its center. And, like him, it contains multitudes beneath its prim surface.
Did I say "him"? Albert Nobbs is, after all, played by Glenn Close, who earlier this week received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the character we first meet as a meek, impeccably groomed butler at Morrison's, a modest but respectable hotel in Dublin. Nobbs has worked there for nearly 20 years, during which time the staff and guests have come to think they know him simply as a reserved keeper of secrets. But two people Nobbs encounters - a workman, Hubert, and a maid, Helen - confront Nobbs with the secret he has held closest of all: that he's really a woman who long ago assumed a man's identity to survive and to this day doesn't know exactly who he/she is.
A heady mix of sexuality, identity, class politics and romantic self-deception swirl throughout the movie, which luckily has been brought to the screen by director Rodrigo Garcia, who has the confidence and taste to allow the story to simply tell itself, with a minimum of style-conscious interference. (He has directed Close before, in "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" and "Nine Lives.") Like John Huston's 1987 movie "The Dead," "Albert Nobbs" turns a careful, compassionate, resolutely patient gaze on the Ireland of yore, where social graces and rituals mask a swirl of more contradictory, even transgressive, realities underneath. Garcia, working from a script that Close wrote with novelist John Banville, never hammers these slippery paradoxes home; rather, he allows the audience to make the connections themselves, taking on Nobbs's own roiling internal questions as their own.
That filmgoers can so easily slip into Nobbs's attenuated reality at all is due to Close's uncanny performance. Although aided by prosthetic work on her hairline and nose, she possesses the kind of transparent clarity and stillness that makes screen acting look easy. Of course it isn't, especially when it's up against a turn as diametrically different as that of Janet McTeer's, whose portrayal of one of Nobbs's colleagues is as unbridled and exuberant as Close's is buttoned-down. (McTeer was also nominated for an Oscar, though it should be noted that Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Brendan Gleeson and Pauline Collins provide decorously piquant ensemble support.)
In a spare and precise a production such as "Albert Nobbs," the rare expression of honesty packs a disproportionate emotional punch. One such moment in particular, when Close and McTeer share a liberated excursion to a beach, brings the film's questions of identity and authenticity into relief with both humor and pathos. It's possible to catch a brief glimpse of the woman Nobbs might have been, but he quickly submerges her to the enterprise of self-control that has come to define him. Like the man himself, "Albert Nobbs" is a sweet, sad, sensitive little film, a haunting reminder that each of us, on some level, is impersonating someone.