Posted on 4/15/13 08:42 PM
To be honest, I've never been much of a fan of Glenn Close. She doesn't seem to be much of a natural actor to me; something about her presence onscreen always seem a little actorly. However, I am now happy to report that I have finally seen her in a film where that isn't the case. In Albert Nobbs, she disappears inside her role so well that we forget we're watching Glenn Close. Unfortunately she is a diamond in the rough, giving a wonderful performance in a film that is too full of characters and rides on a narrative that can best be described as muddy.
Close plays the title character, Albert Nobbs, a fastidous hotel butler in Ireland in the early part of the last century. Albert is so attentive to his duties and so unnoticed that his presence in the hotel almost seems like an afterthought. He maintains his composure, carries on few conversations and goes about his business without an error and without a fuss. There is something so quiet about his persona, that a hidden quality seems to pass by those who occupy his immediate space. If you know Glenn Close as an actor, it isn't too much of a stretch to guess why. You'll notice that I am avoiding an obvious question you may be asking, and I will say that it is difficult to discuss the film without giving away the film's key secret. If you don't wish to know, I would advise you to stop reading now
Albert, we learn early on, is a woman pretending to be a man. She wraps her torso in girdles, cuts her hair short, wears no make-up and speaks very little. Whether or not she is a lesbian remains somewhat hidden; it may be that she doesn't even know what that word means. This is a time period when social status was the cornerstone of being able to make a decent living, and also when homosexuality was still seen as a mental illness (not to mention an abomination). Albert hides behind the persona of a man, and for that reason, I will henceforth refer to him with male pronouns.
The reasons for the gender transformation are simple: Albert is a victim of the times, when women had no rights and no say. Women worked the streets or cleaned parlors and for Albert, this secret identity allows better pay and the chance to work toward a secret dream of opening a shop. His secretiveness is mistaken for painful shyness by those around him, but a tiny crack forms in his facade by a strange coincidental encounter with a burly house painter named Hubert (Janet McTeer) who happens to share the same "affliction" as Albert. The difference is that Hubert is a little more open, and even occupies a marital status. This friendship opens up Albert just a bit. In a quiet, heartbreaking moment, we are privy to some of the things that have led to his current predicament. This friendship also allows him just enough confidence to want to make his move on his secret dream.
What works is Glenn Close's performance. This is a role that she played many times on stage since 1982 (she has credits as the film's co-producer and co-screenwriter), so she has had time to perfect this performance, and perfect it she does. The performance goes beyond a physical transformation, Close doesn't just look like a man, she occupies the very essence of a man. Her movements, her speech, her manners, all seem to suggest a male to anyone who might be paying attention. There's a moment early in the picture when Albert walks to his bedroom and unlocks the door that seems uniquely male. It is difficult to describe but there's something.
What drags the film down, for me, is overplotting. I think it might have been better to simply stay within the examination of Albert's quiet world. The early scenes are captivationg. Unfortunately, the plot gets complicated by Albert's infatuation with a pretty maid (Mia Wasikowska) who is carrying on a sexual relationship with a drifter (Albert Johnson) who encourages her to date Albert in order to get booze and money. Why Albert falls for this woman is something of a mystery, as is the motivation for what he does at the end of the film. I think a little more focus might have made this a great film.