Meek and soft spoken, Albert Nobbs goes through life with her eyes always averted, never challenging others. And no, 'her' was not a typo. Albert Nobbs is unquestionably a woman. Set in Dublin in the late 1800s, the film follows Nobbs (Glenn Close), a lonely houseman, working (and living) in the upscale Morrison Hotel. Houseman is almost too charitable a word. Servant is more fitting. You and I could never live like her. She challenges no one because she fears someone may, in turn, challenge her back. Poor Albert Nobbs. (But don't get discouraged, moviegoers. This is one of the best films of 2011.)
We learn rather quickly that Nobbs is a woman disguising herself as a man, to what end besides gainful employment, we do not know. The women already outnumber the men in a hotel that is literally owned by a woman (Pauline Collins as the gleefully nasty Mrs. Baker). Gender discrimination does not seem to be a major problem. So... why is she doing this? Why does she choose to live as she does?
As we meet Nobbs, we also meet Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson, who has bulked up since Kick-Ass), a down on his luck jack-of-all-trades who was recently fired from a competing hotel. Joe is handsome and dashing, immediately catching the eye of every girl in the Morrison, including Helen Dawes (the wonderful Mia Wasikowska). I must end my plot description here, as a few unexpected twists crop up along the way. One in particular had me audibly gasping in the movie theatre. No small feat.
One day a new friend named Mr. Perry awakens Nobbs' hunger for companionship. The confused Nobbs then sets her targets on Helen, the popular and desirable blonde. (Oh, first crushes.) Being so inexperienced, obviously Nobbs don't got game. Some may say the character is a lesbian (unaware of her own sexuality), who has chosen to live as a man in order for her to better blend in with 19th century society. I disagree.
Albert Nobbs' choice to live as a man does not seem to be sexually motivated. In fact, Nobbs has no apparent sexual impulses of any kind. Close underlines the characters' anxiety and naïveté in nearly every scene. Her eventual courtship scene with Helen Dawes could be taking place in a school yard between two awkward adolescent twerps. Glenn Close (who co-wrote the screenplay with John Banville) received an Academy Award nomination for her performance here, and she deserves it. Close is nowhere to be seen in this film. We only see Albert Nobbs, whom we will eventually come to equally love and pity.
But who is she? Nobbs indentifies as a "man" and has done so for years. Her choice of Helen over someone like Joe Mackins is not a result of sexual attraction, but of gender confusion. To explain: Albert Nobbs is a "man" and since "men" like "women" her choice is only natural. Forgive me for my armchair psychoanalysis, but this film has me on the edge of that proverbial chair. (In actuality, I was in a movie theatre.) The story takes us to unexpected and sometime unpleasant places, offering tantalizingly few answers.
The richest aspects of the film involve the mystery behind the Nobbs character. We see Nobbs saving her money or walking with a girl in the streets and we fear for her safety. This is a human without any understanding of her own emotions. Her lack of aggression comes not from compassion but from fear. It is that fear that feeds her fight (if you can call it that) for survival. Anyone who chooses to live this way is doing so very a very specific and probably sad reason. Note the following dialogue exchange:
Perry: What's your name?
Perry: What's your real name?
Nobbs: (pause) Albert.
She ain't lying. The tragedy of that moment is only fully understood in the end, and by then it is far too late. Poor Albert Nobbs. Certain aspects of the role could be compared to Steve Carrel's performance in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Only darker. Much darker. Nobbs made a grave decision a long time ago and now realizes that she deeply regrets it. This is a wonderful film, deserving of all of its praise. However, Glenn Close and director Rodrigo Garcia's quiet willingness to punish their innocent characters may keep mainstream viewers away. But I hope not.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.