mon 17/06/2024

Albert Nobbs | reviews, news & interviews

Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close touchingly crossdresses in 19th-century Dublin

Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs: playing men at their own game

Glenn Close always had it in her somehow. That mannish jawline was part of her steel cladding in Fatal Attraction. The lasting image of Dangerous Liaisons comes at the close, when Close’s Madame de Meurteuil scrapes off her painted mask to reveal a hard hatchet face. And then there’s her ruthless lawyer in Damages, not to mention two gruesome helpings of Cruella de Vil.

If any of Hollywood’s leading ladies from the past 30 years can get away with strapping up her womanly parts and impersonating a man, it is surely an actress who has often played women who play men at their own game.

Albert Nobbs is all about acting. In this slight but affecting tale of a woman who calls herself Albert and works as a hotel servant in 19th-century Dublin, Close’s task is to play a heroine (or should that be hero?) who has superimposed one character upon another. Indeed she has been so successful that she can barely remember what femininity feels like. The regular guests at the hotel and the rest of the staff accept her maleness without question. If Nobbs is a queer fish, it’s because of his (in reality her) intense introversion. When she speaks, which is infrequently, there’s a gruffness to her voice and the rest of the time she looks no one in the eye, for fear of discovery.

That fear becomes more than theoretical when an itinerant painter and decorator is foisted upon her bare garret quarters for the night by the hotel proprietress (Pauline Collins). Her terror is compounded by the fact that stashed under the floorboard Nobbs has a treasure chest of coinage amounting to several hundred pounds, whose incremental growth she notes down in a pocket book. To the sleepless Nobbs’ horror the decorator, who goes by the name of Hubert Page, soon discovers the secret strapped under her starched shirtfront, partly through proximity, but also partly through intuition. Nobbs is slack-jawed with amazement when her bed companion casually unwraps his own cladding to reveal a substantial pair of breasts.

Janet McTeer is perfect casting as a woman much more comfortable in her assumed male skin. Indeed she has been this way before, making a wonderful roustabout turn as Petruchio in an all-female Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003. Page’s burly swagger triggers first shock in Nobbs, then envy and begrudging respect and finally a touching friendship. Visiting her in the country she is astonished to discover that Page has even managed to set herself up as a married man, and that her loving spouse (Bronagh Gallagher) chirrups with delight at her luck. A fantasy is soon seeded in Nobbs to enter into a comparable arrangement and set up a respectable shop. She embarks on a stiff, clueless campaign to woo Helen (Mia Wasikowska, as ever hugely impressive), a pretty chambermaid at the hotel. But Helen is rather more seduced by the louche charms of an oddjob man (Aaron Johnson), who promptly hatches a plan to fleece the tight-fisted Nobbs of the wealth he (she) has earmarked for buying a property.

Close is also one of the scriptwriters on a project that feels like an international committee’s view of 19th-century crossdressing Dubliners. Just as she has thought her way into the mind and body of a man, a Mexican director (Rodrigo Garcia) and a Hungarian scriptwriter (Gabriella Prokop) have imagined their way into this alien cultural corner. John Banville is also listed among the scriptwriters who have adapted the early 20th-century short story by George Moore (when it will have seemed a lot more transgressive). Among the support cast, Irish actors are few: Brendan Gleeson plays a sozzled doctor whose enjoys secret trysts with Maria Doyle Kennedy’s chambermaid. Indeed Nobbs is English and has long since escaped from a traumatic childhood in London by changing cities as well as genders.

The film's most significant flaw is the blank screen presented by its main character, and the cursory visit to Nobbs' back story. And then there is the issue of knowing too much. It would be interesting to chance upon Albert Nobbs without knowing anything of its provenance or indeed recognising its two transvestite actresses, to experience it in a state of innocence. But even without the shock of revelation, it achieves genuine pathos. The most moving comes when Nobbs visits Page on the coast and together they take a turn on the beach dressed as women. In this brief startling moment of liberation, Close is remarkable: a woman pretending to be a man who has forgotten how it feels to be feminine. It's a mark of both performances that as ladies in finery they are thoroughly unconvincing.

Watch the trailer to Albert Nobbs


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Close’s task is to play a heroine (or should that be hero?) who has superimposed one character upon another


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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