Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs. (SUPPLIED)
By Bernie Jablonski
When I hear “dream project,” or “labor of love” connected with an actor’s career, my mind immediately jumps to Steve McQueen’s Ill-conceived and poorly received 1978 film adaptation of Henryk Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People. Must be the theater major in me. Legend has it that he made it to prove that he could really act. The studio barely released it, and as a kid I remember that the second week’s newspaper ad for the film had an image of McQueen in full 19th-century-long-haired-Norwegian physician makeup, surrounded by seven or eight iconic poses of him from his big hits, like Bullit, The Great Escape, and The Magnificent Seven. I have never seen it, but advance word is not so great. The term “labor of love,” I think, is something that should apply to every work that an artist embarks on; I guess it’s why no positive examples come to mind.
And labors of love take time, with financing, availability, and sometimes even finding courageous collaborators obstacles to be hurdled. These are things I have to particularly keep in mind when reviewing Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close’s great labor of love. As an audience member, the labor of watching the movie seemed to outweigh my love of it. It is, in fact, handsomely produced and well-acted, but ultimately a glum and dreary film about a strange cipher of a man.
It’s hard to write this without revealing possible spoilers, so I’ll warn you now.
Albert is a quiet, unassuming butler at a hotel in Dublin (where the movie was filmed) at the turn of the last century. Although introspective, Albert is a treasured member of the staff, gaining some loose respect from the other staff members and the local doctor, who takes his meals with them. Albert, as you no doubt know if you’ve seen the trailers or read anything about the film, is actually a woman, who had shelter taken away from her while in her teens, and decided to navigate the world masquerading as a man. While ‘he” has been working at the hotel, he has accumulated a stash of money which he guards zealously, dipping into it only if necessary. He is planning to use the money to open his own tobacconist’s shop.
Onr day, two young men come looking for work. One, a hard-drinking roustabout, Joe (Aaron Johnson) passes himself off as a mechanic, while another, Hubert, more affable and trustworthy, agrees to do some room painting in the hotel. The issue of boarding her workers comes up, and the hotel owner, Mrs. Baker (an enjoyably malicious Pauline Collins) has Hubert room with Albert. This puts Albert into a tailspin, but unable to resist in the situation he’s set up for himself, he accepts. As he lies in absolute terror next to a slumbering Hubert, Albert begins to remove his clothes, and is spotted by Hubert.
Albert reacts in horror, while Hubert dismisses the subterfuge, and Albert begs the man not to give him away.The painter agrees. The next day, Albert is left alone in a room with Hubert, and just when Albert thinks that Hubert is advancing on him with ill intent, Hubert rips open his shirt to reveal very full breasts. (Hubert is played by Janet McTeer.)
When they are alone again, the two “men” relate their stories of dealing with a world not sympathetic to the needs of women (especially women in 19th-century Ireland). On seeing that Albert has a happy marriage- to a woman who is fully aware of Hubert’s true nature, no less, Albert decides that taking on his own wife would be the best thing for him to do. He turns to one of the maids, a nice, naïve young girl named Helen (the lovely and very talented Mia Wasikowska of Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are Alright) and while the two of them have a very awkward courtship, with Helen never catching on, Joe uses Helen, whom he’s sleeping with, to manipulate Albert out of his carefully-gathered cache of money, in the hope of using the funds to go to America.
Back to the “labor of love” thing. Close played this part off-Broadway in 1982, before hitting it big with The World According to Garp. She has spent the past thirty years trying to get this thing made, and she’s all over this film as star, producer, co-writer and co-author of a song here, but she’s too old for the part. I’m sorry. She’s a great actress, even lifting up fodder like Air Force One, Mars Attacks!, and, God knows, Fatal Attraction, but once she finally had everything she needed to get the movie made, she should have passed the torch on to someone else. I know that men were often decades older than their beloveds at this point in history, but no point of that is made in the script. In addition to Close’s beautiful face being rendered nearly blank by the expression of nothing more than the subtlest of emotions (which is, of course, the mark of a great actor) the makeup is in such a ghastly shade of white that young Helen seems to be walking alongside a ghost. One could argue that Albert is using heavy white makeup to escape detection, but Helen surely would have either noticed his effeminate use of makeup…or his anemia.
For another thing, one always seems to be aware it’s Glenn Close involved in, it would seem, a stunt, one of the disadvantages of her star persona.
Janet MCTeer, on the other hand, is quite a revelation as Hubert. Looking like a cross between k. d. lang and Oscar Wilde, she is totally believable as a man (damn those trailers), nailing the voice as well, something that Close can’t quite do without sounding forced. (Her reveal is right up there with another Irish-set movie from 1992.) The best scenes in the movie involve Albert, Hubert, and Hubert’s wife Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher) talking together, at ease with each other, the masks totally off, the love between the husband and wife quite radiant. A scene later in the film involving Albert and Hubert in dresses trying to blend in as they walk like men is priceless, and does lighten things up a bit. Because the movie does get a bit oppressive.
I suppose to other folks it might be sad, but since Albert is too much of an enigma, I couldn’t feel invested to be sad. Disaster occurs in Albert Nobbs, in a few forms, and though the quiet climax is supposed to be heart-breaking, it seemed somewhat arbitrary to me, and the implied glimmer of hope at the end did not wash pass muster with me. And trust me. The throwaway oral sex scene (not involving the main characters)? Just gross and unnecessary. And I’m not a prude. I’m sorry. It just burned a hole in my memory like a laser on a retina.
Albert Nobbs succeeds on some levels. The acting is all great, and the beautiful production design is a masterful recreation of time and place, and Ireland is…Ireland (yes, this nice Polish boy has been to that lush country.) My gripes may seem like the grousing of a poorly educated middle-class slob who just likes to watch things blow up, but I didn’t really know why I should be concerned with Albert’s plight. Some labors of love mean more to the laborer than the spectator, I guess.
BTW: Glenn Close is up for Best Actress, McTeer for Best Supporting Actress, and Albert Nobbs is also nominated for Best Makeup. Close and the makeup people deserve Oscars only if the Academy based the awards on effort and good intentions (of which these are considerable); McTeer, would certainly be deserving, in my opinion.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.