Albert Nobbs, adapted from George Moore’s short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” was clearly intended to explore themes of identity – or, more precisely, how identity is starkly divided between who we are within and what we show to the world. It’s a compelling idea, and yet this movie is missing something. It never quite comes together. It introduces us to a number of interesting characters who are either underdeveloped, underutilized, or in some cases, unconvincing. It tells a story founded on deceptions that are plausible but highly unlikely, making it much harder to invest in. And then there’s the ending, which disappoints on both technical and emotional levels. Does that make it realistic? Perhaps, but it doesn’t make it satisfying, or even appropriate.
Taking place in late nineteenth-century Ireland, the film tells the story of Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) a woman who has been living as a man ever since being raped by a random gang of men some thirty years earlier. She doesn’t know her own past, having been raised in an orphanage in England. She doesn’t even know what her birth name is. But as after trimming her hair short, donning men’s clothing, and taking a job as a waiter, she has built herself a respectable reputation. She’s currently the head waiter at a hotel in Dublin, where both the staff and the clientele have secrets of their own. One guest (a cameo by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), usually seen in the company of young women, awakens one morning next to a naked man. During a costume ball, the resident doctor (Brendan Gleeson) drunkenly approaches Albert and asks why he isn’t in fancy dress. “I’m a waiter,” she replies simply. “And I’m a doctor,” he says lifting his stethoscope. “We’re both disguised as ourselves.”
To deal with this upfront, Albert does not make a very convincing man. It’s not so much in her physical appearance, although not even a short haircut can gloss over her noticeably slight physical features. It’s more in her voice, which is too high even after dropping it an octave. Perhaps the issue is that I’m too familiar with Glenn Close. She’s indisputably one of our best living actors, but the simple fact is, she isn’t built like a man. It takes more than binding your breasts to convincingly look like the opposite sex. I would wager they knew that even in the late nineteenth century.
Briefly hired to repaint one of the rooms is Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who, as it turns out, is also a male impersonator. She too has her reasons for this charade, and she too isn’t very good at pulling it off. The important thing is, she has since gotten “married” to a real biological woman. This fascinates Albert, although not for the reasons you might think. You see, she has been secretly hoarding her stash of tips with the hopes of someday opening a tobacco shop. She has already scouted a location. Now all that’s missing is someone to serve the customers – preferably a wife. She has her sights set on Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska). The trouble is, she’s already involved with a young man named Joe (Aaron Johnson), who has recently been hired to fix the boiler.
Theirs is an emotional ordeal deserving of its own movie. Joe, who came from nothing, doesn’t realize just how much he is like his drunkard of a father, who he hates. He’s so desperate to go to America that it he has blinded himself to what really matters, including common decency. Helen shares in some of this; she too came from nothing and now feels entitled. Recognizing Albert’s interest in Helen, Joe sees an opportunity to gain the upper hand. He’ll have Helen escort Albert on cordial walks around the city. Indeed, Albert is trying to court Helen, indulging her with quality chocolates, bottles of fine alcohol, and designer hats.
The elephant in the room is the issue of homosexuality. There’s no doubt in my mind that Hubert is a lesbian. But with Albert, it’s not so clear cut. We hear her professing her love for Helen, and yet we also see her fantasize about the perfect tobacco shop, which is complete with a woman at the counter and a wife’s parlor in the back. Couple this with her ingrained adherence to etiquette, which is so Victorian that it verges on total repression; she will not kiss Helen, put her arm around her waist, or even hold her hand. It seems all she’s allowed to do during the courting stage is buy Helen expensive items. From this, I can only speculate that Albert’s desire for Helen is founded not on personality, common interests, or even basic sexuality, but rather on creating an ideal and proper image of marriage. She’s in love with a domestic role, not a person.
I’ve already mentioned the ending. It would be too harsh to say that it cheats, for it depicts a series of events that are entirely possible. That being said, it leaves everything unresolved. There’s a fine line between not tying things up in neat little packages and simply neglecting to take the story further, and this movie crosses it. Think of it as a phone conversation that gets disconnected just as the person at the other end is about to tell you something important. Furthermore, you’re sure to be struck by how monumentally unfair the final scene is. Is that the other theme of this movie? Unfulfilled dreams? Albert Nobbs tells an unlikely story, so I see no reason why it couldn’t have had an unlikely ending. Realism doesn’t make a movie better by default.