Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Albert Nobbs

2011. Dir: Rodrigo Garcia. Starring: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer and Pauline Collins. ●●●●○

It's fairly common for me to disagree with the majority of critical and commercial response to movies, in fact on a regular basis I watch films hailed as the second coming only to walk away with a "huh?" and a shrug. Sometimes I just don't understand the fuss being made. Oddly though this usually only happens in one direction, I may detest a film everyone else loves but when a film is getting a mauling the best I can usually say is "it's not a complete disaster." However on watching Albert Nobbs I was shocked by the critical derision it have received on both sides of the Atlantic, what's more I don't really understand why, although I suspect it is in part due to the high expectations surrounding Glenn Close's very own passion project. Glenn first played the central role of a male impersonator off Broadway in 1982 and has been working on adapting George Moore's short story for over 20 years, and the sad truth is no matter how good you think the performance and the film is it wasn't worth a 20 year delay.

It's essentially the story of the emotional awakening of a repressed button upped butler who happens to be a woman. In 19th century Dublin with poor social mobility for men, let alone women, Nobbs has spent 20 years masquerading as a man in order to manage a dignified existence and save up to purchase a tobacconist. Her painful but safe life is disturbed when house painter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) has to share Albert's room for the night and discovers Albert's secret. After a few hours of panic Hubert admits that she too is a woman, opening up a whole new world of emotional connection to Nobbs. Indeed the plan for the shop changes from being a one man show to a partnership as Alberts woo the impressionable young maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska).

Most of the characters are largely unlikeable, Nobbs is penny-pinching and emotionally insensitive, Helen is greedy and cheeky even Brendan Gleeson's Doctor is obsequious and a drunkard. Yet it is to the credit of everyone's performances that in spite of all that we care about the future of the characters.

Glenn in particular completely gets under the skin of Albert Nobbs, although frankly you'd expect that given the amount of time she's worked on the character, it's a totally committed performance as furtive and damaged as she is hopeful for the future, every moment of her history etched on her face, every decision the character makes reflected in her eyes. Janet McTeer is also masterful, less so for the emotionality her relative freeness and frankness leaves less to project from behind a mask, but physically she's perfect. There's a great scene where Close and McTeer put on dresses and take a walk along the beach, and they look like men in dresses, layers of performance which are incredible.

Wasikowska is less successful, her modern mannerisms difficult to get past, but she's the only cast member who seems out of place.

The script does a good job of highlighting the hypocrisies in Victorian society both in terms of class and gender, albeit mainly through the gossipy monologues from Pauline Collins' Hotelier. Where Jonathan Rhys Meyers aristocratic cameo is given free range to sleep with whomever he wants and Brendan Gleeson is conducting an illicit affair with one of the waitresses the merest suggestion of a scandal with Nobbs or Helen causes the eventual doom of their characters.

There are plenty of areas where the film gets things terribly wrong too. The pace is deadly slow - believe me I understand why many viewers consider the film to be dull and it is purely an actors love in - which has the doubled effect of confusing the timeline, about 18 months passes through the film, based on the seasons and certain plot points developing , but there's no depth to the time passing. The moments where Nobbs imagines the future of the shop cheapen both the idea and the film with the sub-standard graphics and finally the relentless gloom works against the viewer. Whilst I have no doubt that things were tough in the 1800's a glimmer of hope would have been nice (hopefully that's not too much of a spoiler).

I also loved Brian Byrne and Glenn Close's main theme Lay Your Head Down, both as performed by Sinead O'Connor in the end credits and as used in the narrative, it's a beautiful piece of music that deserved more attention at the end of last year.

This ranks low on the four blob films but I do believe it fully deserves that fourth blob and I would definitely recommend the movie to anyone.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

"it's a totally committed performance as furtive and damaged as she is hopeful for the future, every moment of her history etched on her face, every decision the character makes reflected in her eyes."

YAY. I did not love this (liked it in spots) but I feel sometimes the response has been unnecessarily harsh and I think Close is good and I love when people like it.

Dan O. said...

I don't know about this flick. It definitely had good performances from everybody involved and looked pretty, but the story was so boring and uninteresting that it didn't really do much to affect me. McTeer was amazing though, and definitely the best part of this whole flick. Nice review.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Thanks for the positive comments.

Andrew - I'm at the bat for Nobbs now and like you I want to see people like it.

Dan - I agree the film doesn't have much forward momentum but I personally the performances were strong enough to keep my interest.