In theory, Albert Nobbs is close to my idea of a perfect movie. In practice, however, it is the exact opposite. I have every reason to fall in love with the titular character, played by Glenn Close, and, yet, I didn’t even like him. Close plays a painfully shy and skittish waiter who has been successfully living as a man since she was fourteen. At its core this is a film telling a story that is rarely heard, that of a 19th century woman who secretly lives as a man who hopes to be married to a woman. All are elements that generally push the bounds of what we consider to be acceptable or “normal” storytelling and filmmaking. And it is trying to tell this story because of the support of an iconic actress, and features up and coming actors and actresses, and has high production value. This is why I looked forward to this film for a year. Unfortunately, this film only attempts to tell this story–never, not once, does it actually do so. On the most basic level the film fails because its titular character, featured in almost every scene, is boring. Because the film fails to achieve the first tenet of storytelling (write interesting characters) there is a strange ripple effect that creates unbelievable and insulting portrayals of gender identity and sexuality, specifically lesbianism.
There is a scene that embodies the problem of this movie–it is the scene that will probably be showcased at the Oscars, and if this movie is ever featured in any montage it will be this scene that they show. Watching this scene for me was like nails on a chalkboard. The scene is late in the movie after Herbert Page’s wife has died, which is the only emotionally compelling section of the film. Herbert and Albert decide to put on some of her dresses in attempt to remember what it is like to be a woman, and they go to the sea to enjoy their newly remembered femininity. At least that what is supposed to happen in theory. However, because of the way these scenes are shot and what we see prior, this rediscovery of femininity feels fake and awkward. These scenes are shot in a choppy, sudden way where one minute we see two dresses lying on the bed, cut to Albert and Herbert wearing the dresses on the street, cut to them walking in these dresses on the sea. The viewer is left bewildered–especially by Herbert’s actions because he has never made any indication that he wants to reconnect with his secret gender (neither does Albert for that matter but I’m so uncertain as to his feelings, I don’t feel like I can make that assumption). Then Albert begins running on the shore trying to enjoy the feel of the dress and being a woman out in the open–then he falls in the sand, stands up, and contemplates what has just happened. He has failed to reconnect–he feels false–putting on the dress did not make him feel like a woman. And we cut to Albert and Herbert back in their normal clothes seeming much more comfortable. That is this film. This film tries to be a compelling story about a complicated character who lives a very atypical life that includes cross dressing and lesbianism. The film, like Albert, falls on its face in the sand and forces the viewer to realize that to be a film that contains cross dressing and lesbianism is not to tell the story of cross dressing and lesbianism–it is only to dress up like them.
We are not given the back-story of Albert Nobbs until at least 45 minutes into the film. This, combined with the fact that, Albert is a silent, expressionless, incredibly guarded (even to the viewer) character, makes the first half of the film an uninteresting series of interactions between the staff at Morrison’s Hotel. We are not allowed into Albert’s inner world and begin to think he doesn’t have one. The only thing he shares with us is that he has been saving his money to by a store–sweet if not typical.-but even that is portrayed only by Albert writing down calculations of his savings. We aren’t allowed to understand any of the reasons why he wants to own a shop or wants to leave service. In what I assume was intended to be one of the most climactic scenes of the film, Albert accidentally reveals to his roommate and the audience that he is a woman, and we are finally given some insight into his life. We are finally given a reason to be interested–but by that point it is almost too late.
The person I saw the film with very aptly observed that the first 30 minutes of the film rely on the audience’s previous knowledge of Glenn Close. In other words, it depends on your prior knowledge that Albert is being played by a woman and therefore is a woman dressed as a man. We are given no reason to connect to him or care about him until we find out that he is actually a she. This is not just boring, it is sloppy filmmaking. Regardless of who is in the movie, I want to be hooked and connected to the character I will see in every scene right from the beginning. All we do is follow Albert around his mundane tasks, where he may give the occasional half-smile or blink, and may or may not speak to one of the other servants.
The first time we are given any insight into Albert as a person–his thoughts, feelings, and inner world–is when he is told he will have to share a room with another man, Herbert Page. Here we see some spark of humanity–we see nerves and anxiety. This is somewhat interesting and we learn later that this anxiety is rooted in his fear of being found out to be a woman. But it still isn’t even to make me care because I don’t know this person, and I’m not connected to him–then I’m offered someone who jumps off of the screen and into my life. The same time the film asks us to be interested in the titular character, it presents us with an infinitely more compelling character: Herbert Page. Page, thanks to a legitimately captivating performance by Janet McTeer, is confident, brazen, strong, and funny. He is everything that Albert is not except in a very big way: he is also a woman. Even the way Page reveals his secret is more compelling than Albert’s accidental reveal. Page shuts the door of the kitchen, turns to Albert, and practically rips open his shirt and bodice to reveal her breasts, proudly, yet discreetly owning her secret. I’ve spent a fraction of the time with Herbert Page and yet I am already fascinated by him; Albert Nobbs fades into the background, and I find myself waiting for Page to appear on-screen again.
Having seen what it looks like for a woman living like a man to be married to a woman, Albert begins to desire this for himself. He starts courting one of the maids in the hotel, Helen, played by Mia Wasikowska. Thus begins a series of painfully awkward walks between Albert and Helen. This should be compelling: a woman presented with the possibility of a lesbian life within a heterosexual structure who then goes on to fully embrace her newly discovered sexuality in hopes of attaining what she has seen. However, this is not what happens. For all intents and purposes, even within the bounds of 19th century propriety, Albert does not display any sort of genuine affection for Helen. Again, we are not let into his inner world. The only contemplation of her that we see is when Albert calculates how much their dates will cost and imagines her sewing in the parlor. Never are we shown something from his point of view that tells us that Albert wants to be with a woman as a partner and as a lover. This representation of lesbianism is sterile and, therefore, insulting. The more realistic and compelling presentation of lesbianism is the relationship between Herbert Page and his wife–they flirt, they touch, they laugh together. In short, they act like a couple in love, while Albert acts like an automaton, which is just boring.
The film, overall, makes the same error that we all sometimes make when trying to understand what is outside of ourselves. We don’t allow ourselves to imagine it as a real story. We see it as something that is different, artsy, taking risks, etc. You can only be and do those things if the story you are telling captivates people. Being gay, transgender, a cross dresser, having a fluid sexuality, etc. can be interesting, but it isn’t inherently so. Claiming that they are, that they are inherently not boring, turns them into circus freaks– interesting because of their abnormalities. This does not tell a story of a person, it tells the story of an idea of a person.