Friday, January 20, 2012

Albert Nobbs: Identity crisis

Albert Nobbs (2011) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, and too harshly, for sexuality, fleeting (and chaste) nudity, and occasional period profanity
By Derrick Bang

You’ve seen them at parties, silently sitting or standing in a corner, hoping not to be noticed, praying not to be engaged in conversation.

The quiet ones. The shy ones. The invisible ones.
Knowing little of intimacy, Albert (Glenn Close, right) believes that merely
stating one's intentions can secure a wife and future happiness. But Helen (Mia
Wasikowska) finds little to recommend this "funny little man," and allows
him to "court" her solely so she can request — and receive — expensive
tokens such as fancy boxes of chocolate.

Albert Nobbs is just such an individual, even more so because he’s a butler employed at Morrison’s, an upscale hotel in 19th century Dublin. Aside from fulfilling their responsibilities, wait-staff during this era were expected to remain unnoticed: never speaking unless spoken to, and then generally replying with nothing more than, “Very good, sir.”

But Albert takes such withdrawn silence and polite reserve to an extreme, even when “relaxing” with his fellow servants in the kitchen; although they respect his devotion to duty and attention to detail, most regard him as a “funny little man.” And nobody has crossed the threshold of his tiny room at the end of a hallway in the attic servant’s quarters.

With good reason, for Albert carries a massive secret, the discovery of which could find him dismissed and on the street, where starvation — at this point during Ireland’s history — was all but guaranteed for those without employment of some sort.

“Albert” actually is a woman, passing as a man in order to “enjoy” the greater status accorded the male gender. What began as an act of desperation, 30 years earlier and at the age of 14, has become such a way of life that Albert has become trapped in a prison of her own design.

That time frame is a bit ironic, since star Glenn Close has been intimately involved with this character since starring in a 1982 theatrical production, adapted from the short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” by 19th century Irish author George Moore. Close won an Obie Award for her work in the Off-Broadway production; her film career took off that same year, when she co-starred in The World According to Garp.

But she never forgot Albert Nobbs, and no surprise there: He — she — is a fascinating character. The minimalist stage version of this story employed considerable mime, and Close inhabits the role here with balletic precision. Gestures are few, expressions are sparse; we cherish the moments when Albert’s lips flicker into the ghost of a smile, reflecting a secret delight almost never given voice.

Alas, director Rodrigo García’s big-screen adaptation, Albert Nobbs, isn’t nearly as fascinating as its subject. The film is heartbreaking, at times shatteringly sad; an aura of tense expectation hovers over these characters. We expect something dreadful at nearly every turn, starting from the first few moments, when we learn that Albert has carefully saved more than 500 pounds during her years in service; these tips and wages have been recorded carefully in a ledger that is hidden with the money, each evening before bed, beneath a floorboard in Albert’s room.

Nervous anticipation, over what might happen to this treasure that means everything to Albert? Oh, goodness, yes.

Albert’s almost ghostly presence stands in stark contrast to the hotel’s other, varied inhabitants. The establishment is run by the strict, fussy Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), who preens among her aristocratic guests but waspishly belittles her staff at the slightest provocation. This script — credited to John Banville, Gabriella Prekop and Close — paints the upper class as pretentious and arrogant, as personified by the philandering Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

The hypocrisy is maddening: Mrs. Baker winks and turns a blind eye to bedroom-hopping shenanigans by her guests, when she’d fire a butler or maid who indulged in similar “godless” behavior.

Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), a more benevolent sort, has become something of a permanent hotel fixture; we assume that Mrs. Baker lets him stay in exchange for his medical training ... although his usefulness has been diluted by too much alcohol. Still, Dr. Holloran is able to blunt some of Mrs. Baker’s crueler intentions.

The staff includes Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a young maid with ambition and perhaps too much cheek for one of her station. She’s also naïve and impressionable, and therefore susceptible to the charms of new handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson), an illiterate bad boy with a dream of making his fortune in America.

Albert has a dream, as well: a desire to purchase a storefront and transform it into a tobacconist’s shop, complete with living quarters — a cozy little apartment illuminated by a roaring fire — upstairs or in the rear. Albert’s eyes shine when imagining this idyllic future; it’s the only time he seems to come alive. Albert has decided that 600 pounds is the magic amount necessary to secure this freedom from hotel service: a goal most definitely within reach.

The group dynamic shifts — setting the story in motion — with the arrival of Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter hired by Mrs. Baker to enhance one room. The job takes a few days, during which Hubert is assigned to sleep in Albert’s room: a decision greeted by the latter with abject horror.

But to Albert’s relief, this potential crisis works out all right, the issue resolved in a manner that brings the film a rare moment of genuine humor. Hubert, it turns out, carries precisely the same secret.

The difference, though, is that Hubert has a much stronger sense of self, having embraced this clandestine existence as an adult. Indeed, Hubert is even married, with a wife (Bronagh Gallagher, as Cathleen) who seems content with the arrangement.

Poor Albert, wholly ignorant about issues of sexuality, doesn’t even think in terms of Sapphic love. Seeing this relationship solely as an indication that such happiness is possible — “If you’re lonely, and you want to find someone to share your life with,” Hubert gently suggests, “then go and do it” — Albert unwisely decides that Helen should be part of that “perfect” future life.

Helen, by this time, has become Joe’s lover.

Joe, suspecting that Albert has some brass stashed away, sees a different sort of opportunity. He encourages Helen to “step out” with Albert: to string the poor fellow along in order to be gifted with fancy items. Although not entirely happy with this scheme, Helen succumbs to her own desires.

And so, these wheels set in motion, we await the inevitable crash ... and wonder how many lives will be crushed in the process.

The narrative avoids judgmental views about sexuality; labels don’t seem appropriate. Albert and Hubert aren’t cross-dressers; Hubert and Cathleen aren’t lesbians. They made choices to avoid the much larger monster: crippling poverty.

Close’s performance is exceptional: no surprise there, since she’s been intimate with this character for three decades. Her manner of imbuing Albert with a will o’ the wisp intangibility is beguiling, but we hunger for revelatory moments. Indeed, Close’s big scene is a corker, when Albert finally explains “his” childhood to a sympathetic Hubert ... who, sadly, isn’t terribly surprised.

At the same time, we almost feel ashamed, as voyeuristic observers prying into Albert’s secret past. Few other cinematic characters have been so tragically damaged, so “special needs”; García’s tone, at times, will remind viewers of 1980’s The Elephant Man. This film lacks that earlier drama’s blatant cruelty, but it delivers equal dollops of despair and false hope.

McTeer’s work is equally powerful, the actress — thanks to her large frame — being even more credible as an earthy man. That aside, it’s fascinating to watch as McTeer allows her character’s feelings to evolve. At first, Albert is merely a curiosity who surprises and then amuses Hubert. Over time, though, Hubert’s concern becomes gentler, even parental: a compassionate response that eventually will find a surprising outlet.

Johnson, impressively, keeps Joe somewhat sympathetic, even as we grow to despise him; Joe is fleeing his own demons. Wasikowska, as well, avoids making Helen a one-note opportunist; somewhere, deep down, this young woman knows right from wrong. Her hard life simply doesn’t allow much concern for others.

Despite these intriguing and absorbing performances, though, somehow García’s film is less than the sum of its parts. The narrative is too fragile, too delicate, too unhurried; it begins to feel somewhat insubstantial and unreal, like poor Albert’s imagined tobacconist’s shop.

Less real world, and more a parable (although I’ve no doubt that desperate women, back in the day, took such extreme measures to survive).

Then, too, the atmosphere of anguish is suffocating at times; I can’t see viewers leaving this film and encouraging friends to take it in. Albert Nobbs can be admired as an honorable effort on Close’s part, to forever record a character with whom she has lived for three decades ... but that’s unlikely to translate into mainstream success.

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