by Justin Senkbile
Stuffed into a rigid suit and moving with immaculate austerity, Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) works as a waiter at the Morrison Hotel, somewhere near Dublin, Ireland in the 19th century. Though an essential fixture in the functioning of the household for years, Albert is private to the point of eccentricity, so its only natural that no one would suspect this timid waiter is in fact a woman, wrapped up tightly in a corset.
The center of “Albert Nobbs”, a film directed by Rodrigo Garcia (who made a pretty good movie in 2009 called “Mother and Child”) is Albert’s dream: to open a tobacco shop with her hard-earned savings, and find a bride to share it with. The idea comes by way of an encounter with another woman in hiding, a housepainter going by the name of Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). Hubert has managed to find a willing wife who knows about her secret, and has made a comfortable life for herself. But how exactly such a feat was pulled off, Albert isn’t entirely sure (“Do I tell her I’m a woman before or after the wedding?”).
So with a clumsy and frequently touching naivete, Albert stumbles along in pursuit of a young maid at the hotel named Helen (Mia Wasikowska) without really knowing how to and, one senses, without really knowing why. For her part, Helen begins accepting the advances only to secure a few new hats and boxes of chocolates. She has her own problems, after all, particularly her fiery boyfriend Joe (Aaron Johnson), and hasn’t much interest in her strange, aging co-worker.
“Albert Nobbs” is a textbook Oscar hopeful, with impeccable period costumes, jokes that don’t always hit the mark, and even it’s own Sinead O’Connor song (“Lay Your Head Down”). And its all built around Close’s “prestige” performance in such a way that it can’t help but feel calculated. But this is something of a passion project for Close: not only does she star in it, she’s credited as a co-writer of the script (along with John Banville and Gabriella Prekop) and of the above mentioned song. And fortunately, her passion wasn’t all for naught, because behind the preciousness of it all, there are a smattering of truly touching moments.
Most come by way of Albert’s interactions with Hubert, and Close and McTeer’s palpable platonic chemistry on screen. For my money, Wasikowska’s is the stellar performance here. Her Helen shifts flightily from harmlessly childish to calculatedly cruel, often within the same scene. Brendan Gleeson turns in a notably good supporting performance as Dr. Holloran, a resident at the Morrison.
Most of all, “Albert Nobbs” is a film about identity. “You don’t have to be anything but who you are” counsels Hubert. And therein lies Albert’s problem. The reason that she has assumed this male identity certainly has a lot to do with the gender politics of her era. But the film focuses instead on the big, broad questions. Who is she? And how is one, male or female, expected to behave outside of the endless duties of the hotel? The tragedy of the film isn’t so much the well-handled finale as it is the sense that Albert has begun tackling these questions a bit too late in the game.
“Albert Nobbs” is playing at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets, through February 23rd.