Albert Nobbs is a movie that will be overlooked. It’s a small film only getting a limited release and if the recent awards lists have been any indication, even Glenn Close’s captivating performance won’t do much to change it. It’s a shame because Albert Nobbs is entertaining, humorous, touching and thematically interesting, even if those themes have already been tackled in other films. Explain the plot synopsis and that wouldn’t be readily apparently, so even though this isn’t one of the year’s best, it’s certainly the most surprising.
Close plays Albert Nobbs, a woman in the 1800's working as a butler at a hotel under the guise of being a man. She hides her figure, wears no make-up and slicks her hair back. She has everybody fooled, which is a necessity if she hopes to keep her job and raise enough money to open her own shop. One night, however, she is forced to share her room with a guest, Hubert, played by Janet McTeer, and her secret is accidentally revealed. However, by strange luck, the man in her room is also really a woman. The two form a bond and the more Nobbs learns of her life, the more she envies it. Hubert is actually living with and married to another woman, so Nobbs begins to court one of the maids she works with, Helen, played by Mia Wasikowska.
Although surprising in quality, Albert Nobbs offers no surprises narratively. The plot turns it takes are obvious and all but those who are paying close to no attention will be able to see them coming. I battled with myself over whether or not to reveal that Hubert was actually a man as well, but then I realized it was hardly a spoiler. Once the viewer finally comes to the realization that the film is Oscar bait, the ending is a foregone conclusion, but that in no way diminishes its quality. The path to that ending is well structured with interesting characters and contemplative themes.
Nobbs is unaware of who she really is and has had a tragic past that included a brutal raping. Nevertheless, she’s a hopeful optimist, one that is looking to start a business in a time when women weren’t even allowed to hold certain jobs. At the same time, there’s an inner struggle that is never expressly stated, but nonetheless apparent. Nobbs needs a change. She needs to get away from her job where she is unappreciated and poorly paid. She needs someone to love and she’s finally working up the courage to follow her feelings, even though those feelings are contrary to what society says is the correct way to feel. You can tell she has been unhappy for a while, but after she meets Hubert and begins to make some changes with the way she lives her life, you see the hope begin to build.
You can’t help but love and root for Nobbs. When another character begins to take advantage of her, there’s a simultaneous feeling of anger and sadness. How could anyone do that to such a sweet, loving person? Of course, the driving force behind this character is Glenn Close, who gives one of the best performances of her career. She’s vulnerable, but strong, and her facial expressions are deep and nuanced. You can tell she has a lot invested in her character; she’s so good, she makes the movie.
The costumes and set design are top notch as well. Where Albert Nobbs leaves a little to be desired is in its direction, which is generally flat and uninteresting. While there’s certainly nothing in the film requiring flare, a constant string of shot-reverse-shots don’t do it any good. There might not be much there visually, but that’s a small flaw in an otherwise great movie.
Albert Nobbs receives 4/5