Who Knew Albert Nobbs Could Make 19th Century Genderqueerness Boring?
By Alex Cranz
The character study is a great storytelling device on television where you can afford to devote one episode of a hundred episode series to a character’s mind. It can be great in film too, but there the necessity for a strong plot is also required. You cannot simply have just a character study–no matter how fascinating that character may be.
Albert Nobbs, the titular waiter of this Glenn Close vehicle, is as fascinating as they come. At first she seems simple; a woman who dresses as a man and works as a butler/waiter in a Dublin hotel and longs for nothing more than a person to have tea with in a little parlor after a long day’s work. But what has driven this woman to become a man? What has driven her away from companionship? What has driven her into a thankless job working for a thankless woman? How does she cope each day? And how can she continue to live such a small existence?
You’d think these questions and their answers would be enough to fill up an entire film, especially when there’s a supporting cast as excellent as this one populated by Maria Doyle Kennedy, Brendan Gleeson, Janet McTeer, Aaron Johnson and Mia Wasikowska. But the sad truth of it is Albert Nobbs is a boring little woman dressed like a man and her life and its history hold no interest. She’s such a thin veil of a person that it is difficult to find her remotely engaging.
The only thing anchoring the film and making it watchable are the performances. As the lead Glenn Close is a wonder to watch. She dares to be unobtrusive like her character and she perfectly toes the line between woman and man, blurring the lines of gender and almost making it seem…inconsequential. It isn’t just wonderfully applied prosthetics (the makeup of the film was nominated for an Oscar and deservedly so) that turn her from the striking actress we know into this tiny little person, it’s the way her voice shifts into a deep and soft brogue, the way she bobs from scene to scene with this wonderful look of naïve wonder. She becomes Albert Nobbs. All vestiges of the actress/producer disappears.
The actresses and actors around her run the gamut of “hey that guy” (Aaron Johnson was the titular Kick-Ass and Maria Doyle Kennedy has been eviling it up on Downton Abbey this season) to “I don’t know who you are but I want to watch you in everything.” The latter perfectly sums of Janet McTeer. A popular stage actress her best works have been seen by a few hundred people at a time in the intimate setting of the theater.
So often stage actors have difficultly with the transition to film. They play things too big and too broadly. Not McTeer. Is it hyperbolic to call her perfect in her role? Perhaps, but she’s the true heart of the film. She brings the humor, warmth and pathos that make things interesting and she never plays too broadly, preferring to play things as subtlety as Close and the others.
I’d love to talk about particular scenes that McTeer steals but my audience was full of older women drunk on cheap bottles of wine and expecting little from the film, and their audible delight at some of McTeer’s best scenes is still ringing in my ears. So I won’t spoil it for you.
It’s so odd that her character becomes to critical to the success of the film. The film focuses so intently on Nobbs that it’s remarkable that anyone could steal the show when faced with as good a performance as Close gives. Yet that’s the problem. Close may be extraordinary but her character is frustratingly mute and ordinary. We learn so little about Nobbs in our two hours with her. Many of the big questions society demands we ask of the character are never answered and our only addressed in subtle looks and sparse comments.
In a world that is often frustrating in its adherence to binary genders a character like Albert Nobbs is an oddity. A woman or a man? Homosexual or heterosexual or some other point in the spectrum? Nobbs exists in such a tightly wound little world yet blindly subverts it with her every breath.
But there are no accolades for her accomplishments. No acknowledgement of her achievements. The flash and drama we naturally crave from exploring such a creature as Albert Nobbs is wholly absent. In the end we left with a character study that seems profoundly unnecessary. A great opportunity missed. Which is ironic as that sums up poor Nobbs herself as well.