Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

19th century Ireland: poverty and disease stalk a country whose people lead tightly regulated lives. In the sanctuary of Morrisons Hotel, Albert is fortunate enough to have a good job. It's the fruit of a long career spent obeying the rules, patiently deferring to others, saving up pennies that might one day enable the purchase of a little business and later retirement by the sea. There are shades here of The Remains Of The Day. Albert's own identity has been lost somewhere along the way. But Albert's identity is more complex than anyone suspects.

From medieval times, but increasingly with the rise of cities and the anonymity they granted, hard up families would sometimes raise an older female child as a boy. Sometimes young women found this way of living for themselves. A boy - and the man he grew into - could earn much more money, could live independently, and was safer from the sexual violence women feared. Of course, transsexual people might also live this way, and it could provide a solution for lesbians who wanted the freedom to form relationships with women. But even now, this is hidden history. Many of these people would have thought they were the only ones. This is what Albert believes, until a chance encounter with a visiting painter (a joyfully macho Janet McTeer) turns his world upside down. If this painter can live a full life, with an independent career and a wife, could Albert do the same?

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On the face of it, this is a film about gender roles and the difficulties faced by those who cross over. In reality it is itself more complex. "We are playing ourselves," says the hotel doctor, commenting on the way he and Albert remain in their professional roles at a fancy dress party. The prim hotel landlady is a lower middle class woman putting on upper class airs and graces. The hotel guests (including a gleefully irreverant Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) use adjoining rooms and a thin layer of pretence to conceal their gay relationships. The staff have affairs and dream of better things, sometimes eagerly deluding themselves.

Into this layered world comes ambitious young handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson), scheming and seducing maidservant Helen (Mia Wasikowska) who, in turn, he persuades to seduce Albert. It's a familiar tale - the vulnerable older man, the pretty young woman stringing him along for money, and parts of this story stick tediously close to formula. Its ending is also weak, neatly obviating more difficult narrative challenges, but it has the excuse of closely resembling some real life tales like Albert's. But what really makes the film work is the ambiguity around its central character. Glenn Close gives a fragile, distant performance, often eclipsed by the charismatic characters around her, but always at the centre of things. Her Albert is able to give no other name for himself. Would he live as a woman if he could? This is never clear cut. Trying on a dress, he looks like a nervous transvestite. He is a character for whom gender - beyond its social connotations - seems largely irrelevant.

Thoughtful and imaginative in its exploration of hidden lives, Albert Nobbs can largely be forgiven for its clumsy plotting. It is at heart a human story, refreshingly troubling and humane.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2011
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Albert is a servant with a secret, born as a girl but living and working as a man in a world where everybody seems to be hiding something.
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Director: Rodrigo García

Writer: Glenn Close, John Banville

Starring: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer, Aaron Johnson, Pauline Collins, Brendan Gleeson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Year: 2011

Runtime: 113 minutes

Country: UK, Ireland

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