Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 17, 2012)
By the end of the 1980s, it seemed certain that Glenn Close would win an Academy Award as an actor. After all, between 1983’s The World According to Garp and 1989’s Dangerous Liaisons, Close received five Oscar nominations.
And then – poof! Close veered more toward pop fare like 101 Dalmatians and Air Force One, so she didn’t appear in much that seemed to be “Oscar-worthy”. Eventually Close gravitated toward TV – her lead role in Damages kept her busy for years – so I figured Close’s Academy Award window had shut for good.
Nope. I don’t know if Close will ever actually win an Oscar, but 2011’s Albert Nobbs brought her back to cinematic prominence, as it earned her a Best Actress nomination. She lost to Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, but after 22 years away from the Oscar ceremony, it was nice to see Close in contention, and I hope that this becomes a springboard to renewed glory for her.
Set in 19th century Dublin, middle-aged Albert Nobbs (Close) is employed as the head butler at Morrison’s Hotel. He saves his money diligently in hopes that he can someday launch his own business. In the meantime, he lives a quiet, subdued life in which he usually keeps to himself.
This changes when Albert is forced to share his room with a worker named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). Albert tries to get through the night without provocation, but when a flea gets inside his clothes, he freaks – and reveals himself to be a woman. Page sees this but promises to keep mum about Nobbs’ true identity.
As it turns out, Page has a good reason to be sympathetic, as “he” is also a woman pretending to be a man. Indeed, Page played the game so well that “he” married a woman. This inspires Albert to believe that he/she might be able to enjoy a less solitary life, so he sets his sights on fellow servant Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska).
I suspect movies with gender-bending characters work best as comedies, largely due to the inherent unreality of the situation. Rarely do women-pretending-to-be-men or men-pretending-to-be-women actually seem believable. It’s a rare movie in which the audience truly buys the gender shift that we see the characters accept, so the concept fares best when placed in a comedic circumstance; since films of that sort want laughs, we don’t take the unreality as seriously.
This becomes a flaw in Nobbs, as I found it difficult to ever suspend disbelief and accept the notion that no one questions Nobbs’ gender. Granted, people tend to believe what they’re told, and without substantial reason to suspect otherwise, most would probably swallow Nobbs’ – and Page’s – claims of masculinity.
As a viewer, though, I never buy the conceit. While I could explain the characters’ suspension of disbelief, I couldn’t do it myself, and I constantly wanted to smack the participants upside the head and yell at them “that’s a woman, baby!” While talented performers, neither Close nor (especially) McTeer ever become remotely convincing as men; I always remained astutely aware of their femininity.
I might’ve found it easier to suspend disbelief if Nobbs provided a more engaging tale or set of characters. With a more involving story, I’d care less about the seeming believability of the ruse, but Nobbs doesn’t dig too deep. We get only a superficial view of what led Albert to launch her ruse, and we never get an especially good take on the role.
Granted, I suspect a lot of that’s intentional. Nobbs is a person who’s lived a lie for decades, and someone like that would try to blend in as much as possible; he should would lack much in the way of distinguishing traits on purpose.
Nonetheless, I’d think the movie could bring out more of Nobbs’ internal life, especially as it develops his/her growth after he/she attempts to broaden his/her life horizons. While we see a mild awakening in Albert when he/she launches into his/her attempted romance and change of life, this theme doesn’t prosper.
That’s partially due to an unfortunate story shift that occurs around the start of the third act. Typhus hits Dublin and sends the movie down a weepy melodrama path that doesn’t suit it. At its best, the film hints at an intriguing tale of a person whose life allows them to blossom at a semi-advanced age, but the impact of disease on the scene takes it off the rails. The typhus doesn’t dominate, but it starts the story on a trajectory from which it never recovers.
I can’t call Nobbs a bad movie, and despite my inability to accept Close or McTeer as men, they do well in their roles. I just can’t find enough substance to the tale or its characters to involve me in the film. It creates a fairly bland melodrama without much depth, and that becomes its main flaw.