Glenn Close has finally played the role of her lifetime on screen. She originated the titular character of Albert Nobbs in a 1982 Off-Broadway adaptation of George Moore’s Irish novel, and has been working since then to get a movie made. Her considerable talents — five Academy Award nominations in the 1980s — kept her busy. And then it was difficult to find a screenwriter until she finally took the bull by the horns and wrote it herself, with help from Irish novelist John Banville. When producer Bonnie Curtis got the script, she knew that it was a perfect fit for director Rodrigo Garcia. And thus at last we all can see the thoughtful, engaging fruit of Close’s long labors.
There is a lot going on at Morrison’s Hotel in fin de siècle Dublin. One of the wait staff has a drinking problem; another is so old he falls asleep on his feet. A long-time resident doctor (Brendan Gleeson) is carrying on with one of the maids, while another of them, Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), takes up with the new house laborer, Joe (Aaron Johnson), who dreams of leaving for America to escape the hard times in Ireland. And waiter Albert Nobbs (Close) is secretly a woman. Most of these secrets are somewhat open, but nobody knows about Nobbs except Nobbs herself.
That is, until the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) decides to place Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a house painter, in Nobbs’ room so he doesn’t have to travel across the city and back overnight while he works. Nobbs is found out, but Hubert promises to keep the secret; after all, she’s secretly a woman as well. And thus Nobbs meets the first confidante she’s had in decades.
Hubert is actually married to a milliner and keeps a simple, working class Dublin home with her, unbeknownst to their neighbors. And this fuels Nobbs’ dreams of taking his sizable savings and setting up a tobacconist’s shop — a dream which may now include companionship. The unfortunate difference is that while Hubert and her wife are a lesbian couple — nothing is made explicit, but Garcia effectively conveys the nature of the relationship with a minimum of fuss — Nobbs isn’t really classifiable as anything but Nobbs. She’s been hiding for so long, with so many layers upon layers of her masks, that her sexuality is almost a moot point. Despite well-meaning encouragement, what works for Hubert will not work for Nobbs, though she may try.
Where the play focused mainly on Nobbs and Hubert, the film expands narratively to build a much fuller picture of the goings-on in the house, and Garcia does excellent work in bringing 19th century Dublin to life. He also brings us in, nose to nose with Close, so we can watch the expressions play out over her face as Nobbs struggles to process the flood of new thoughts and feelings. And Close does an excellent job of bringing Nobbs to life, but McTeer’s performance is the one to watch.
Albert Nobbs is a lovely, thoughtful exploration of identity and life among the serving classes in its period of Irish history. Close’s thirty years of work have more than paid off.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.