Returning to a role she once played on stage back in the early 80s, Glenn Close brings her Academy Award nominated lead performance in Albert Nobbs into wider release this weekend. While the film manages to be interesting despite a wonky script (which Close also had a hand in) and some suspect direction, it’s easy to see why this film and the character at the heart of it has remained such a labour of love for the celebrated actress. It’s a very actorly, if not entirely likable main character with a lot of psychological subtext to play with, and one that elevates the performances of the all star cast that surrounds her.
The titular Nobbs is a woman that has been moonlighting as a male butler in a posh 19th century Irish hotel to make ends meet.Nobbs has been in deep cover so long that she scarcely remembers what its like to be female, and her pathological attention to detail has also made her a notorious miser chronically squirreling away her tip money under the floorboards of her room without ever spending a cent. Nobbs’ world and relationship to her co-workers is thrown into flux by the arrival of two new workers. One, a painter named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) shares the same secret as Albert. The other, a young street hustler named Joe (Aaron Johnson), cons his way into a job as a boiler repairman and stands as a rival to Albert in her unrequited crush on one of the maids (Mia Wasikowska).
While Close does a fine job as Nobbs, the psychology at work behind the character becomes far more interesting to talk about than the performance. Close keeps her lips stiff behind some subtly applied make-up that puts other similar work in other films of last year to shame. At times, Nobbs’ neuroses border on derangement, which suits the film well since it’s clearly building to her breaking point. One sympathizes, but doesn’t necessarily want to root for Albert. She’s been inside for far too long to fully reconnect with a life once lost. At the halfway point of the film where she finally breaks down and describes her past, Close does a great job of showing Albert’s struggle to reconcile the repressed. Albert not only wants to believe this isn’t true, she doesn’t even know if it ever was in the first place.
But if Close puts in a great performance, McTeer absolutely slays this material. In a decidedly smaller role as someone seemingly just passing through, one wishes the entire film was about Hubert instead. If Albert is a repressed, ticking time bomb waiting to go off, Hubert is the ideal. She quite simply doesn’t care anymore. She’s found happiness, gotten married in secret, and is genuinely enjoying her life. She doesn’t suffer fools easily and doesn’t take any push back from anyone. McTeer acts as the film’s heart and soul in something that otherwise could’ve been a very stodgy period piece. She’s a live wire that makes the movie come to life every time she’s on screen, and unlike Nobbs, if something unfortunate happens to Hubert, the audience cares even more.
The supporting cast of familiar faces (including Brendan Gleeson as a sympathetic in-house doctor and Brenda Fricker as the shady, hard-assed hotel proprietor) all have some great moments to themselves, but one has to wonder why Jonathan Rhys-Meyers has such high billing for being in four scenes as a Duke staying at the hotel who hardly has a single line and is drunk all the time. As for the chronically up and coming Johnson and Masikowska, they’re doing what they can, but their characters lead to the biggest problem with the film.
Around the halfway point, Albert Nobbs suddenly and sharply turns into a much different and much darker film. Once Johnson’s character enlists his new paramour into cruelly tricking Albert into buying them frivolous things, the film sours because the audience hasn’t been eased into this wild tonal shift. The wit and sharpness of the first half descends very quickly into misery and despair, leaving the film’s second half to feel competently made, but wholly forced. It’s almost like director Rodrigo Garcia simply up and decided to make a completely different movie halfway through filming. All in all, the film manages to be worth a glance for the cast alone, but a little more consistency would’ve been nice.
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer
Directed by: Rodrigo García
Top image: A scene from Albert Nobbs. Courtesy eOne Films.