September 13, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: “Albert Nobbs”


Rodrigo Garcia’s film ALBERT NOBBS (he shares auteurship with Glenn Close, who served as screenwriter with John Banville and Gabriella Prekop and as a producer as well as star) caters to what used to be called the James Ivory audience, when he was still churning his films out. In NY, these are the audiences at the Paris Theatre; in LA, they’re at the ArcLight and (even more) the Landmark. They like their intelligent historical dramas with a social theme; they were starting to be neglected in recent years, until The King’s Speech came along, and this year, Albert Nobbs is there for them.

As is widely known, getting Nobbs made has been a crusade for Close, who played the title role off-Broadway more than a decade ago. Nobbs the character is an ordinary butler in a late 19th Century Irish hotel–ordinary, that is, except that he’s actually a woman pretending to be a man, it being a time when women weren’t permitted to hold such jobs. He/she’s succeeded in fooling those around him for decades, but an accidental meeting with another cross-dressing worker (a house painter played by Janet McTeer) who has actually married another woman and lives with her as man and wife, broadens Albert’s horizons and eventually leads to dire consequences. 
The main point of Nobbs the movie, of course, is Close’s performance, and it’s a model of restraint–so much so that it could put a dent in her Oscar hopes, as voters tend to favor the flamboyant over the repressed (think Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs versus Hopkins in Remains of the Day).  The performance makes sense, as Albert (we never learn the butler’s original female name) has been hiding his/her whole life, but it’s also somewhat problematic dramatically, because Albert is apart from anything else a completely blank slate, utterly naive about love, sex and just about everything else–which, after a life spent in hotels, among staff and guests, seems somewhat contrived.  Also problematic is Close’s make-up, which is so extreme as to make her appear robotic in certain shots–not, it seems, because of the gender-switching (McTeer has a far more naturalistic look), but because Close, in her early 60s, is really far too old to be playing Nobbs, who’s meant to be 20 years younger.  Close’s age, which is never effectively masked despite all the effort, is a mixed blessing, in that it helps to confirm how out of touch Albert is with everyone else at the hotel, but on the other hand makes Albert’s fumbling attempts at romance seem inappropriate for reasons having nothing to do with gender.
Despite these troublesome issues, Albert Nobbs is fairly consistently entertaining.  Much of it has to do with our endless fascination with upstairs/downstairs stories of the British well-to-do and their servants, as evidenced by the runaway success of the recent (and far superior Downton Abbey).  In some ways, the sections of the script having to do with the rest of the staff at Albert’s hotel are more engaging than Albert’s own story.  The cast includes Mia Wasikowska as the pretty maid everyone desires, Brendan Gleeson as the (naturally alcoholic) doctor, and Aaron Johnson as the new handyman who ends up central to Albert’s difficulties.
Garcia’s direction is considerably more varied than in his earlier films like Nine Lives and Mother and Child, which tend to play out as set-piece scenes for his actors.  Nobbs, while no one will mistake it for a Michael Bay picture, has some sense of pace, and an ability to build plot urgency.  As always, Garcia is wonderful with the performers, and here he has effective photography (by Michael McDonough, who also shot Winter’s Bone) and production design as well.

Albert Nobbs is a very safe kind of social story–there’s not a lot of dispute these days about the ability of women to work without hiding their gender, and any gay rights message the picture may intend is muddled at best by Albert’s curious standing as a character.  It’s best appreciated by those Paris and Landmark crowds, as a new contribution to the film archive of stories about elegant old-time settings and the people who inhabited them.   

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."