Late 19th century Dublin is a place of hardships; fear of typhoid and poverty grip citizens as they go about their daily lives in a struggle to survive. Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close, “Damages”) is among the lucky few employed as a waiter in an upscale hotel, making enough money to get by. But Albert dreams of owning his own tobacco shop; he’ll live above the shop with his wife and eventually retire on the Ireland coast, and he has saved enough to dare believe his dream could become reality. But Albert has a secret he takes the greatest care in hiding: He is a woman. Originally disguised to find work, Albert adopted a deep voice and donned a waiter’s uniform; he has all but completely abandoned his femininity and replaced himself as a proper gentleman at the service of Ireland’s finest.
With a stiff posture and emotionally packed expression, Close crafts Albert into more than a persona of rejected female demeanor. Close transforms herself, and Albert, into a man seeking stability and assurance for the future in a world eager to show how fragile one’s way of life is. Although an unusual role for Close, she takes on Albert’s rigidity and emotional scars with award-worthy acting.
When Albert’s secret is accidently revealed to a painter hired by the hotel (Janet McTeer, “Island”) Albert is shocked to learn he is not the only one taking drastic measures to secure a future. Albert begins to open himself up afterwards, and decides to look for a wife. Albert’s decision isn’t made because of sexual desire, but rather because he is simply looking for a companion and normalcy in the chaos of economic and social unrest.
Albert begins to court Helen (Mia Wasikowska, “Jane Eyre”), a beautiful young woman who works as a maid in the same hotel. But Helen’s heart already belongs to the spontaneous and more attractive Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson, “Kick-Ass”) who promises to take her to America and leave decrepit Ireland behind. The audience can clearly see Albert’s struggle to push himself to pursue a partner, the result of a harsh past Albert must work around in order to achieve his goals. While Helen begins to deceive Albert for money and gifts, she begins to contemplate her choices. She must decide to either take a chance on Mackins and find a better life in America, or settle down with a sure-bet on Albert’s financial success.
The film relies heavily on breaks in the emotional tension with crude one-liners and witty interactions between genuine supporting characters that flow surprisingly well. While the cast is large, dialogue is carefully chosen and worded to give characters a three-dimensional feel. The hotel staff has an sense of community that is clear from beginning to end of the film, helping carry the audience through the lulls in Albert’s story.
The hotel Albert works at is a central plot device that helps the audience realize the mood and era in which the film is set. Its economic and social ups and downs are set to soft or sorrowful classical music while guests enjoy themselves or leave in panic. The worn look of the late 1800s is all over the rooms and surrounding area, showing Ireland’s lack of stability and wealth during this tumultuous time. Albert knows all too well how life can change in the blink of an eye, whether we want it to or not, whether we take action or remain still.
“Albert Nobbs” is not a focused character study, but rather a reflection of its temporal setting. Eerie connections easily can be drawn between the job market two centuries ago and that of today; people are so desperate for any job they can find that they are willing to do anything. But the film goes beyond addressing the selfish needs of humans and instead focuses on the inherent human instinct to be together and at ease. The film is an explanation of how life is never fair, and how making the best of the hand we’ve been dealt is often necessary. While the morality of this message can be debated, “Albert Nobbs” does an excellent job of depicting the lengths that must sometimes be taken to find contentment and peace.
4 stars out of 5