Albert Nobbs

by deerinthexenonarclights

I usually prefer using smaller pictures in the prefaces of my posts but in this particular instance I simply could not go past that poster. It is just beautifully realized, every element sings: the simplicity, the imagery, the typography and most of all the subtle duality. Upon first glance the film that the poster is selling should also be a beautifully realised production, every element is one to which we usually sing praises: It is an accurately depicted period piece with an amazing cast, some stunning sets, set-dressings and dresses and most importantly an intriguing and somewhat original premise. Though where I could not help but to display the poster, I can’t truthfully recommend this film anywhere near as thoroughly; because in the end a movies quality comes down to the words driving the pictures, and in this case a seemingly scattered-together script prevented any of those fine elements from coming to fruition. That though is not all there is too it, something at the heart of Albert Nobbs sits wrong, something that is not at all as simple to explain.

I don’t mean to sound all mysterious but the truth is I can’t quite put into words what it is that I struggled with during this film, a film that I found for all intents and purposes to be quite pleasant company while it played. As is routine in any investigation one must first rule out the innocent parties and in this case there are only two that count as such. Glenn Close was actually rather convincing in her role, despite it’s obvious challenges. Though my familiarity with her face and mannerisms made it hard at first for me to accept her as Albert I found  my resistances wearing away with each minutes, to the point that seeing her back in female garb seemed as gaudy as any man in comedic drag; that seeing a woman in a dress would come as such a shock is a testament to her performance and a confirmation of her capability. The real stand out though, as everyone else has said, is Janet McTeer who faces similar set-backs but overcomes them stronger; her look in the guise is even more manly, and she more than has the chops to back that up with acting skill. These two do great work and are a pleasure to watch.

Strangely though, given that their names are just as highly held as Close’s in the acting community, the rest of the cast are middling to atrocious. I don’t want to cast aspersions, in fact I am rather a fan of most of them, but this is not their best light, not by a long shot. The two native draws, Brendan Gleeson and Jonathan Reece Davies, are relegated to virtual bit parts, probably only playing the roles out of mandatory service to the local industry. Gleeson’s good Doctor is charming enough sure but that is more than outweighed by his contrivance, he exists only because the story needed a medical professional in a  few scenes, not because he himself is of importance. Davies on the other hand doesn’t even have that honour; he is a glorified extra, swigging beverages, shouting noisily and then disappearing without purpose. While our local contribution, Mia Wasikowska (Who did her best work with Garcia during their shared time on In Treatment), and her counterpart Aaron Johnson, two extremely talented young actors, fail to convince or involve even while playing roles of their natural gender. The scene where Wasikowska weeps and wails on Close’s chest is, without a doubt, woeful.

The biggest issue though is the script. The story itself seems rather fascinating at first, a woman is driven to dress like a man in order to retain dignified employment after the Great War, but the film seems hardly interested in exploring the obvious facets of this. That Nobbs is not in fact a man is only made clear a good quarter of the way into the movie; making it either the worst kept secret in cinema or the biggest assumption of audience knowledge. Instead the film chooses to focus on Nobb’s future; her dreams of opening up a tobacconist despite having no knowledge of the stuff – presumably she has just heard it was reputable – and to do so she needs only two thing: money and a wife. While one of these pursuits seems obviously clinical – scenes of coin counting do not make for the most dramatic of moments, as we are shown repeatedly here – the other should be our emotional window into the experience and yet it is written in the same exact way. To Nobbs the challenge of courting ends with budgeting out an allotment for gifts and if she doesn’t care anymore than that then how should we? I’m not saying that they necessarily needed to have her fall in love with Wasikowska, or for someone to steal the secret stash of shillings she keeps under her floorboards, but surely there is some solid middle-ground between melodrama and … this?

Even if the story itself does not rivet as it should there are times when the premise is used to raise some pertinent points; after all how better to highlight the lines of social boundary than by breaking them like Nobbs does here? Based on synopsis alone one could say that the film is making a stand on women’s rights in the workplace, throwing a stone at that ever-present glass ceiling, but once you’ve seen it you know that this is never actually an issue. So too one could argue that the depiction of the two central relationships, one heterosexual and one homosexual, is an indictment of the western worlds paraichacal preference of paramour. While this thesis may hold more water than the last – there isn’t a moment of heterosexual interest that is played in a positive manner, nor one where the laughs seem to be sorely at the expense of the lesbian characters – it isn’t one that the film itself holds any passion for. If Albert Nobbs is a political statement of any kind then it is one written in neat black print for a small audience to skim over, not a big bright sign that screams its message across yards to all who will hear it.

Towards the end of the film a character utters a rather strange but effecting line, “I just don’t understand why some people live such sad lives”. Now, up until that point I had assumed that writer/director Roderigo Garcia was simply failing to be entirely sympathetic towards poor Albert, but that singular line seems to put all that offside. His intent then only makes sense as an indictment of Nobbs, looking down at her for trying to turn over a new leaf and laughing at her as she struggles. Not only then is the film as cold and unfeeling as its central character, it actually holds her in contempt. The audience will forgive many things of its protagonists – see one Tony Soprano for a key case in point – but we will not accept it when an omnipotent being tries to keep them down or kick dirt in their face and that is why we struggle when seeing this film. We don’t want Nobbs to finally get the girl of her dreams, we want her to get out from Garcia’s grip and this struggle alienates us from the proceedings past the point of not caring and into the realm of dislike; Garcia’s feelings flung back at him.

Appearances can be deceiving. What looks like a man at a glance can actually be a woman and what looks like a masterpiece on A2 poster paper can actually be … whatever the hell that was. Though I may have come across as entirely contemptuous myself I don’t mean to be, there is much virtue and validity to be found in Albert Nobbs and if you’re accepting of that then you will likely enjoy yourself as I did for the most part. Though you will most likely leave wondering why some people make such sad films, it’s not an entirely uninteresting point to ponder and for that I don’t regret the experience.