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Dustin Putman

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Albert Nobbs  (2011)
2 Stars
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia.
Cast: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer, Aaron Johnson, Brendan Gleeson, Mark Williams, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, John Light, Phyllida Law.
2011 – 112 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 2, 2011.
"Albert Nobbs" was produced and co-written (with Gabriella Prekop and John Manville) by Glenn Close, based on the novella by George Moore, and it's no surprise that the veteran actress has also nabbed the title role for herself. With the exception of her small-screen work on cable drama "Damages," Close hasn't had a juicy part in ages, and this passion project must have leapt out as seeming mighty special. The story of a woman posing as a male butler at a hoity-toity Irish hotel in the late-19th century, it sounds and looks from the outside as pure Oscar bait, the kind of small prestige title that scrappily defies the odds, making a tidy sum of money and guiding its aging star to awards glory. The reality, however, is not quite such a sure thing. Neither the movie nor the performance is memorable enough to cause much stir, and they will likely get lost amidst better end-of-the-year offerings.

For years, even decades, Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) has served as the diligent head butler at Morrison's Hotel. A dutiful big man on campus amongst the staff of maids, cooks and servants, Albert finds his status threatened with the hiring of the young, virile Joe Mackens (Aaron Johnson). A chance friendship with house painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer)—and the mutual discovery that they are both females posing as the dominant sex in an unforgiving, chauvinistic society—brings to light the sacrifices Albert has made in never accepting herself for who she really is. Hubert, who is happily married to a woman, appears to have it figured out. In the hopes of attaining the same contentment, Albert sets her sights on courting unassuming maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska)—who has recently begun a relationship with Joe.

Save for a typhoid outbreak and the general struggles of equality by the fairer sex, "Albert Nobbs" lacks a strong historical context and feels almost shy about its dramatic potential. Perhaps due to budget constraints, usually inventive director Rodrigo Garcia (2008's criminally overlooked gem "Passengers") has made an aesthetically bland movie beneath what he is capable of. And, because the film has been tackled in such an otherwise serious low key, the suspension of disbelief asked of audiences in regards to Albert's and Hubert's gender—they both are plainly women in drag, but no one else seems to notice—is a tough pill to swallow.

Albert may be the lead, but she is a tough person to figure out, not helped by a screenplay that gives her little to say and less to reveal about herself. Yes, she dreams of one day settling down and opening a tobacco store, but her motivations are wildly sketchy. She doesn't appear to genuinely love Helen, whom she is using as more of a pawn than anything, so why is it so important that she marry her? Furthermore, is Albert a lesbian or are her romantic pursuits all a game? Looking like Conan O'Brien crossed with a creepy marionette doll, Glenn Close (2007's "Evening") is not given the chance to let loose within a character who is physically and emotionally buttoned up. Who is she beneath the surface, besides a woman? As Helen, Mia Wasikowska (2011's "Jane Eyre") is fair and lovely, but her character is played as a fool and her relationship with the much, much older Albert never grows as anything meaningful.

"Dear Jesus, I don't know what makes people live such terrible lives," remarks Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson) near the end of "Albert Nobbs." It's a great line, but it would have had more of an impact were a deeper connection and understanding been built for its protagonist. As is, it's difficult to even know why she does what she does and whether her actions derive from selfishness, desperation, or something more. The ending, which aims for the same type of tragic irony as 2004's "Million Dollar Baby" and 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," simply doesn't come close to matching or earning that level of gravitas. The expectation is for the viewer to be overcome with feeling for Albert, a person who has never given herself the opportunity to live as her true self, but that aim never surfaces. Instead, all that occurs is a sinking sense of what could have been with a more penetrating exploration of its provocative subject matter.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman