Gender roles and more importantly, our preconceived notions of them, are put into question in Rodrigo Garcia’s latest film, Albert Nobbs. Starring Glenn Close as a diminutive butler in 19th century Ireland. The very idea of her character is contradictory to what we would perceive as likely or proper for the times.
Albert Nobbs is a woman tormented by her past and longs for a future that most people, man or woman of her time, would never see. When we first meet Nobbs she is well into her life pretending to be a male butler for a small hotel. Her ability to fool others around her for what we can assume has been years is amazing. There are many times in the film’s 113 minutes that you simply forget that Glenn Close is playing a man. She is so convincing that you can see why the other characters in her universe suspect nothing. Nobbs’s life is routine heavy; simplistic and predictable as one’s life could be. Nobbs is similar to a tiny toy soldier who is wound up and set on her way each morning. Preparing the guest rooms, bringing the proper flowers to the hotel’s common patrons, and dropping off a stiff drink to the hotel’s in house doctor. Nobbs never misses a beat. She is clearly the star of the staff and she is perfect. Saving every bit of money that is earned and meticulously recording it in a journal, Nobbs ends her day. Life is going exactly as planned until Nobbs meets someone who is in a surprisingly similar situation. Janet McTeer plays the spoiler of the best-laid plans of Nobbs with her stand out performance as Hubert Page. A challenger to the system; the monkey wrench is embodied in this powerhouse of a character. Page is forced to sleep in the same bed as Nobbs for convenience one night and through a series of events it is revealed that Albert Nobbs is in fact a woman. The relationship that develops between the two is something to see. The almost student/teacher dynamic makes for great cinema.
Nobbs’s desire to be normal is amplified to extreme levels when the choice of personal relationships and marriage are contemplated. Throughout the movie Nobbs dreams of starting a business, escaping the mores of the simple life that has been led up until this point. You become sympathetic to this as we all yearn on some level for the good life. Nobbs decides that Helen Dawes, played expertly by Mia Wasikowska is the right person to live out the rest of life with. However, Helen has other plans and the answers are not so simple as Nobbs would like them to be. Aaron Johnson, who plays Joe allows for a dimension of manliness that is naturally lacking in Nobbs. Physically and emotionally, Joe is the man’s man that Nobbs on many levels yearns to be. He is envious of him but Nobbs, in some ways, is a better man than Joe could ever be. The question of what masculinity is can be found in the triangle of interactions between Nobbs, Helen, and Joe.
Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, and Aaron Johnson all give award winning performances that leave you beaming during the 3rd act of the film. However, I thought the standout performance goes to Janet McTeer. Her limited screen time did not preclude her from making a vast impact. Glenn Close’s Albert Nobbs was a one-note performance. However, I don’t say that in a derisive way at all. The Nobbs character is played this way on purpose I believe. Nobbs is a woman who is desperately trying to blend in and bring no attention. Nobbs is pretending to be something that she is not and can only take cues from what actual males do as some sort of gender understudy. She is purposely inaccessible to the people around her and it speaks to what someone in her position would actually do. She rarely smiles or shows emotion. For this, would let her mask slip and ruin her. She needs to be at arm’s length away from everything and everyone to make it work.
Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs is an important film. When watching this movie you lose yourself in what society tells you is the right thing for a woman to be. What objects, jobs, and notions are distinctly male or female? Do we, as a society ultimately decide what the limits of male and female rolls are? Nobbs challenges this to a large degree. Even though this film takes place in fictional 19th century Ireland the tone and the messages are still relevant today. We watch the cultural wars wage in reference to fair treatment of women in the work place even in 2012. The notion of gender and femininity are taken apart and laid bare for you to see and judge for yourself. Did we limit ourselves in what we thought of women in the past? Do we continue that destructive trend today?