I’m afraid that before I can begin to thoughtfully unpack and deconstruct Rodrigo Garcia’s cross-dressing drama Albert Nobbs (and I may not even get that far), I’m going to have to address the giant elephant in the room. This is a movie in which Glenn Close plays a woman who poses as a man to secure employment, make money, and build an honourable life for herself in 19th century Ireland. And her name is Albert Nobbs. You may think it childish of me to find humour in a single entendre like that… and you’d be right. I also find it consistently hilarious that there is a Cocks Rd in almost every Australian state, and that, theoretically, someone could live at 119 Cocks Rd. But that’s by the by.
The person responsible for selecting this surname is George Moore, author of the 1927 short story The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs. Based on the sense of humour apparent in the film adaptation penned by John Banville and Close, I have to assume he christened his lead character in the hope of inspiring a cheeky giggle or two (although perhaps I’m justifying my own juvenility). Albert works at the deluxe Irish hotel Morrison’s alongside a gaggle of similarly curious individuals: hotel-mistress Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), feisty young servant Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), the rebellious and dangerous handyman Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson), and the amorous resident doctor (Brendan Gleeson). By comparison, bland old Albert blends into the background, and that’s just the way he likes it.
When Mr. Nobbs’ true identity is accidentally spotted by painter and impromptu roommate Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), he fears the gig is up. That is, until Hubert reveals he’s keeping a similar secret, by way of flashing him his lady parts. With that, a world of possibilities is opened up to Albert, and he begins to court Helen in the hopes of taking a wife just as Hubert has. And here’s where things get a little bit confusing, not just for Albert and Helen, but for the viewer as well.
Is she gay? Transgender? Merely a frightened woman who finds solace in clothes that keep her out of the gaze of leering men? The picture seems to think that these three things are one and the same, making Albert a composite rather than a fully-rounded depiction of a human being. Surely the experiences of the oppressed LGBT people of this period deserve more sensitive examination instead of being reduced to a glib punch line (as Albert so often is). That’s not to say the story can’t be comic – it just needs to be real first. Close is fine, and McTeer is rather good, but they pale in comparison to Mia Wasikowska, who has a less showy role but still manages to steal the film from under the seasoned pros. Albert Nobbs isn’t exactly offensive or discriminatory; it just dances around all the interesting sexual politics at its core and is content to be a totally by-the-numbers period piece. A singular movie, this ain’t.
Albert Nobbs opens in Australian cinemas December 26, 2011.