Movie Review - Albert Nobbs

As with so many stories, this one is about people who want a better life. Often times, it's something simple like wanting to own a tobacco shop in small town, Ireland. Other times, it's something a bit more complicated like wanting to escape to America. There are obstacles to these people getting what they want. Some of those obstacles are traditional. Others are not so traditional.

Glenn Close stars as Albert Nobbs, a woman who pretends to be a man and works as a butler in Morrison's Hotel, an Irish inn. Nobbs pinches and safely tucks away every shilling he earns. He's very quiet and shy. He frequently talks to himself and his dream is to buy his own business. That dream changes or gets amended with the arrival of a new person.

Janet McTeer who receives her second Oscar nomination for this role plays Hubert Page, another woman pretending to be a man and who works as a house painter. Page comes to Morrison's Hotel for some renovation work. Mrs. Baker, the lady who runs the hotel, makes Page the new roommate for Nobbs and it doesn't take long for the two of them to learn each other's secrets.

Besides being cross-dressers, apparently both women are lesbians and this guise is the only way for them to be who they are in this possibly mid-20th century setting. At one point, Brendan Gleeson who plays the hotel doctor says to Nobbs, "We're both disguised as ourselves." Yet, besides Nobbs' reserved quality, it doesn't feel like an identity crisis. Yes, Nobbs is a woman dressed as a man, but Nobbs knows who he is and what he wants.

Page's presence though is like a key that unlocks a door for Nobbs. Page shows Nobbs that his desires are possible and attainable, but they're not going to come without a few road blocks. Nobbs falls for Helen, a young hotel maid, played by Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right). Helen, unlike other woman, doesn't really have any career aspirations. She, like some, just wants to marry a wealthy husband or a husband who's going places. She thinks she's perhaps found that in a young man named Joe Mackins, played by Aaron Johnson (Shanghai Knights and Kick-Ass), a man who bounced from bellhop to boiler fixer.

While Nobbs makes plans that include Helen, it never really seems to be a competition between Nobbs and Joe. It's just as well because there is absolutely no chemistry between Close and Wasikowska. It's only later that Helen appreciates a life with Nobbs but in no way do you imagine them together. What would have really shaken things up if Nobbs fell for a man, maybe Jonathan Rhys Meyers who has a small role in this movie. Then, instead of a hidden romance between two women, which never really materializes, we would have gotten a taboo romance between two men, one only perceived as such. Page's on-screen romance, though brief, was actually more passionate than the one Nobbs has or rather doesn't have.

I'm giving a spoiler alert now. The Oscar-winning film Departures (2008) from Japan opens with a scene where the mortician realizes that the dead body before him is a cross-dresser or possibly transgendered. It's a shocking moment because the dead person was so convincing in just the look. In Albert Nobbs, a similar thing occurs, but it's not as shocking because the dead person, in terms of looks, could be easily deconstructed.

As a story about a working-clas, Irish man, trying to make something of himself, Albert Nobbs works. It also works as an example of the idea of human adaptation and growth. I'm not sure it works as much else. I think it tries to be something more. It might be trying for some kind of message about feminism and female empowerment, but that message gets lost somehow.

It reaches also for people's pursuit of dreams. Sometimes, dreams that involve other persons can sometimes not be shared by those same persons. This is certainly the case for Nobbs, Helen and Joe. Nobbs has a dream with Helen that she doesn't necessarily share and Joe also has a dream with Helen that she comes not to share.

The movie might also have a message it's trying to push of acceptance. It's not really acceptance of what you might expect, which is the sexual orientation or even the gender identification of Nobbs, because these things are merely questions, questions that Nobbs asks, but never really get answered.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some sexuality, brief nudity and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 53 mins.


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