A review of "Albert Nobbs," a movie based on a story about a 19th-century Irish woman who disguises herself as a man to escape a life of vulnerability and poverty. It stars Glenn Close.
Albert Nobbs is a small man with a face that’s pale and almost featureless; it’s as if he’s been partially erased. As an employee of Morrison’s Hotel in 19th-century Dublin, he serves meals, polishes shoes and quietly stands at attention, acknowledging the guests with a pinched, almost inaudible “sir” or “ma’am.” When not immediately engaged in an activity, he seems to go into a staring trance, as if making himself invisible unless he’s of use.
At night, he carefully counts the coins given to him in tips by hotel guests, storing them under a loose floorboard in his comfortless room, against better days to come. And night, perhaps, is the only time he allows himself to think about his secret: He’s actually a woman, one who disguised herself years ago in hopes of escaping a life of vulnerability and poverty.
In “Albert Nobbs,” Glenn Close plays the main character, co-wrote the screenplay and is a producer of the film; it’s a longtime passion project for her, inspired by a play about the same character (from a short story by 19th-century Irish author George Moore) in which Close performed some 30 years ago.
It’s a small, gentle film with wistful sadness peeking around its corners, and when it’s over you may feel as if you want a little more, as if we’re not much closer to understanding Albert than we were at the beginning. Asked his name by a new acquaintance (Janet McTeer, who’s marvelous) who knows his secret, he promptly replies “Albert.” Your real name, insists his friend. The childlike Albert looks confused. “Albert,” he says, seeming a little upset. This woman has so successfully removed her true identity, she doesn’t even know her name anymore.
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It’s a challenge for Close to make a creature so tightly controlled into a sympathetic character, and yet the actress does so with a lovely subtlety: We learn, long before we’re told, that something terrible once happened to the person now called Albert, from the shadow in Close’s eyes. Albert, however, still has fantasies: a fire-lit parlor of his own; a little shop with his name out front; the end of loneliness. He innocently tries to find a partner for those dreams, in the form of a pretty, impetuous hotel maid (Mia Wasikowska); we know, before we’re told, that this won’t turn out well.
Director Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”) nicely re-creates the claustrophobic world of the hotel, and there’s a “Downton Abbey”-ish pleasure to the upstairs-downstairs drama and the elegant costumes. But at this film’s quiet heart is a character who almost isn’t there, whose very stillness speaks volumes, and whose story, though never quite told, captures our imaginations.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org