Albert Nobbs isn’t a bad film, but it is a strange one, and it’s as problematic as it is successful. At one point Mia Wasikowska’s character refers to Albert as “a strange little man,” and it’s a description that seems to fit the overall film as well. Just like Glenn Close doesn’t really pull off being a passable man, neither does the film pull of the strength of its protagonist’s story.
Albert Nobbs, through some dire and heartbreaking circumstances, ended up alone in the world at a young age with nothing and no one to depend on. Considering the time period and how women were hardly treated as equals, and certainly weren’t employable in the same way as men, she tried and apparently succeeded in disguising herself as a man in pursuit of a job waiting tables. As time passed and her career continued, she grew into her new identity to the point that her identification of herself as a woman even became somewhat cloudy to her. Thirty years on, and we find Albert Nobbs as the head waiter at a boarding house, stockpiling her earnings under a floorboard in her bedroom.
Yet for all of her success in maintaining her own independence, Albert Nobbs is lost inside, and doesn’t even seem to be able to decide how she might be able to find happiness. Enter painter Hubert Page, played by Janet McTeer. Hubert’s doing some work at the boarding house, and so owner Mrs. Baker decides to put her up in Albert’s bedroom with Albert. Terrified of being exposed, Albert almost has a seizure while trying to fall asleep sharing a bed with Hubert, and is nevertheless revealed as a woman. Shortly thereafter, in an effort to put Albert at ease, Hubert rips open her own shirt to reveal substantial breasts and the fact that she, too, is a woman in disguise. Hubert tells Albert her story, and that in her new identity as a man, she’s even married and has a wife. It doesn’t take long for Albert to visit Hubert and wife Cathleen to investigate their living arrangements, and to lock onto their lifestyle as the solution to her own happiness, deciding to pursue a wife of her own.
Part of the problem of Albert Nobbs is the fact that neither Close or McTeer are very passable as men. McTeer lopes around with a permanent scowl on her face and a stiff swagger, but her body type is too obviously female particularly with those large breasts that she doesn’t even attempt to corset in. It sort of pains me to say this, because I’m a big fan of both actresses, and this is such a long-time passion project of Close’s. She’s certainly the more passable of the two, playing her role with understatement instead of McTeer’s broad physicality that almost borders on self-parody. There’s a scene near the end of the film where both women put on dresses for the first time in years, perhaps even decades, and walk out together on the beach. Ironically, they’re more passable as men in those dresses than they are when dressed up as men.
The second problem of Nobbs is the way that we’re kept at such an emotional distance from Albert, and the way there are so many uncertain elements to her identity. From what we’re told, it doesn’t seem that Albert is a lesbian or even a transvestite by choice, but that her dressing is a man was a financial necessity of survival for the time. So why would Albert want to take a wife? If anything, Albert seems almost asexual. Perhaps Albert’s desire for a marriage really only represents an attempt at a superficially normal life, as sexual attraction barely seems to enter into the picture. But there’s so much that begs to be explored here, and so many questions about the nature of Albert’s sexual identity that are simply never even addressed. It doesn’t even really seem that Albert wants to be loved so much as she wants to be accepted as a person able to make her own living. Nobbs feels as though we’re only ever skating across the surface of the real story and of Albert Nobbs’ psyche, and for such a fascinating character with so much compelling potential, it’s frustrating that we never break through that surface to more deeply explore the character.
And finally there’s Albert’s courting of Helen, a maid at the boarding house where she works, played by Mia Wasikowska. Helen has some affection for Albert as an elder and as a strange old creature she barely understands. But Helen herself has fallen into an affair with new handyman Joe, played by Aaron Johnson. Joe is a temperamental hothead who still hasn’t gotten over his own abused childhood, his inability to read, or his longing to escape to America. He entertains himself with Helen, but it’s obvious he doesn’t have the maturity to be capable of actual love, and he even encourages Helen to go out with Albert and swindle him for gifts. The scenes where Helen does just that, are of course, unsettling. But what’s more unsettling is simply the fact that Helen obviously has no love for Albert, and Albert doesn’t know Helen enough to really have feelings for her, either. Not that she even seems to. Helen appears to be more an accoutrement in the pursuit of Albert’s dream of independence and self-sufficiency and a tobacconist’s shop of her very own. In fact, being so out of touch with Helen and what she wants or who she is, and seemingly being incapable of actually connecting with her, Albert Nobbs comes off as much as a predator as anything else. Hubert Page, by comparison, is obviously a lesbian at this point in her life, and in a happy and loving relationship. But for Albert Nobbs, this potential life with someone she doesn’t even know just seems like a bizarre fantasy disconnected from all reality.
And all of this may be true, and perhaps that’s somewhat intended to be the point. There’s certainly room for a compelling story with these circumstances. But again, the problem is that we don’t really get very far inside Albert’s psyche, so it’s hard to have the kind of deep empathy that would be required for the story of such a disconnected and misguided creature for it to have genuine emotional resonance. It’s obvious how much Glenn Close has put into this project, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s enough. The period settings and costumes are authentic, and the cast is a solid one. Brendan Gleeson has a few welcome comic moments as a doctor at the boarding house, and a drunken bit while wearing a stethoscope at a costume party as he quips to Albert Nobbs, “We are both disguised as ourselves,” connects more than most of film’s intended bigger moments. None of these characters are made intimate enough to the audience to emotionally resonate, including Hubert and Helen, so it’s not simply a problem afflicting the role of Albert. There’s a conversation near the end of the film between those two that’s obviously supposed to inspire a certain kind of reaction with the audience, but for me it just seemed to continue this unintentional, lurking theme of sexual predator-ship. Albert Nobbs certainly isn’t a great film, and for all of its odd missteps, it’s perhaps even a near miss at being a good one.