By Caitlyn Collins | January 27, 2012
Director: Rodrigo García
Writers: Glenn Close, John Banville (screenplay), George Moore (novella)
Starring: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Brendan Gleeson, Aaron Johnson, Pauline Collins, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Johnathan Rhys Meyers
Despite being a fan of Irish culture and literature, I knew nothing about George Moore’s novella, “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” originally published in 1918, until recently. Glenn Close co-wrote the screenplay, produced, and stars in the film adaptation, Albert Nobbs. The story takes place at the turn of the 19th century in Ireland, a tumultuous period for not only Ireland but the rest of the British Isles and Europe. When the story was published, the Easter Rising of 1916 had occurred in Ireland and much of Europe was embroiled in World War I. I find this fascinating, as the story of Albert Nobbs is in some ways about a personal war, a struggle of identity, sexuality, and honesty with one’s self.
Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is a waiter at Morrison’s Hotel, run by Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins). He has a shy yet respectable demeanor and is definitely the type of person who takes his job quite seriously. He’s liked by Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), who frequents Morrison’s for the food and drink as well as a particular maid. In essence, you get the feeling that Mr. Nobbs (as he’s called throughout the film) has not deviated from his daily life in any way for decades. He thrives on the routine of his duties and retires to his room to miserly count each pence he’s earned and hidden away.
This routine would have continued for quite some time if the arrival of Mr. Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a house painter, hadn’t occurred. Mrs. Baker hires Mr. Page to paint a small area of the kitchen and suggests that he bunk with Mr. Nobbs for the night. It’s the first time that Mr. Nobbs looks emotional at all; panicked, in fact. His world turns topsy-turvy because of the presence of a flea.
Glenn Close is best known for her eccentric roles (read: she’s always playing someone who is bat shit crazy) but this is by far her most challenging and transformative performance. Rather than her usual overly emotional characters, Mr. Nobbs almost never deviates from his calm and collected manner. When he does, such as the moment Mr. Page reveals his own secret, Close’s performance is powerful yet subdued. Janet McTeer’s performance rivals that of Close’s own.
The change in Mr. Nobbs once his secret is revealed and shared with Mr. Page is remarkable. He is humanized in a way, as a world of possibilities is suddenly before him that he didn’t even dream of prior to Mr. Page’s arrival. It is Mr. Page who shows Mr. Nobbs the life he could have; a home with a loving wife, tending to a business of one’s own. Mr. Nobbs begins to share his desires with Mr. Page, ideas that he seems to have never before truly entertained to be within the realm of possibility. His penny pinching actually has a purpose; he hopes to own a shop with an apartment above and a parlor for entertaining just behind the shop. He does have feelings for someone, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a young maid at the hotel. Helen, however, is madly in love-lust with Joe (Aaron Johnson), the temperamental young lad with dreams of sailing to America. It is this love triangle that determines the fates of all.
Albert Nobbs director Rodrigo García has worked with Close before (Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Nine Lives) and has a penchant for directing stories about women. García eloquently captures Close’s just below the surface portrayal of the turmoil that Mr. Nobbs experiences. Close’s Mr. Nobbs is almost too emotionally stunted, but then again that might just be the price of living as someone else for decades. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but the character feels stale in some way, although perhaps this is just the way that Mr. Nobbs was written. I will without a doubt purchase the novella and watch this film again.