Saturday, February 11, 2012

Albert Nobbs

As numbingly inert as its title character, Albert Nobbs is a triumphant actor’s exercise that never quite succeeds as a movie.

That may be partly because its star, Glenn Close, is a co-writer and co-producer, having worked for years to get the movie made after playing the part onstage in 1982. But it probably has even more to do with director Rodrigo García (Mother and Child), whose films often feel a bit hollow and contrived despite featuring great performances by great actresses.

A woman passing as a man in late-nineteenth-century Dublin, Nobbs (Glenn Close) is a waiter in a hotel whose staff lives onsite. The perfect servant, he is observant, precise, and self-effacing to the point of near invisibility. As Close’s stiff stillness implies and the script eventually confirms, his extreme diffidence is the self-protective armor of someone wounded by a severe trauma.

In one clumsy scene, Nobbs puts on a dress and ventures outdoors in drag. Pulling at the sleeves of the dress and adjusting its shawl with exaggerated ineptitude before running on the beach like something out of an old tampon ad, Close switches from an emotional near-standstill to a gallop, pulling us right out of the story. Aside from that lapse, though, she keeps Nobbs’ emotions and body language in tight check even when he lets himself go, sobbing in fear when his secret is discovered or flinging himself at the cad who seduced and abandoned the woman he loves (more on that in a minute).

But Close’s admirably subtle performance is betrayed by a script that reveals so little about Nobbs that we never get past his carefully guarded exterior.

García and cinematographer Michael McDonough bathe nearly everything in a golden glow, but that artificial warmth can’t breathe life into the stereotypes that stalk the servants’ quarters, with its saucy wenches, bad-boy schemer, and big-hearted, boozy spouter of home truths (Brendan Gleeson, wasted). The glimpses we get of the guests, like a spoiled rich boy played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, are even more vestigial, giving us only the most general sense of the indignities built into Nobbs’ job.

So we’re as beguiled as Nobbs is whenever the magnetic Helen (Mia Wasikowska) or Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) commandeer the screen. Page, a house painter who comes to touch up the hotel, could easily have felt like just another stereotype, since she’s been conceived as the anti-Nobbs, another woman passing as a man who uses that freedom to carve out a large and comfortable place for herself in the world. But the magnificent McTeer swings her big body through space with an easy grace. Gazing at the other characters with big eyes as bemused and empathetic as Nobb’s are hooded, she makes them—and the film itself—relax and open up during her too-brief scenes.

Wasikowska is also wonderful as Helen, a maid whose defiant spirit and porcelain beauty make her irresistible and, ultimately, vulnerable to nearly everyone else in the hotel. Wasikowska has just one brief scene to convey Helen’s grief, anger, and loss of hope after she winds up enslaved to the merciless manager, but she makes it count, registering the narrowness of this vibrant young woman’s options as a genuine tragedy.

Meanwhile, Nobbs remains nearly as opaque at the end of the film as he was in the first frame. We hear a lot about his dream of owning a tobacconist shop, and of marrying a woman, as Page has done, to work the counter with him. But why not just hire his help instead of marrying her? Is he dreaming of sex? Of companionship? Both?

What little we see of his chaste, quiet courtship of Helen hints at the sad possibility that he may not know enough about either sex or companionship to aspire to them, but the filmmakers never make that clear. Nobbs is reduced to talking to himself to convey what little we learn about what he’s thinking, which makes him sound as touched in the head as Helen thinks he may be.

It might have been easier to empathize rather than just sympathize with Nobbs if we could have seen something of the young woman he used to be, and of how and why she made that transformation, rather than just hearing him tell Page that part of his story. But Albert Nobbs never finds an effective way to dramatize his point of view, forcing that poor sidelined creature to play a supporting role in his own story.

Written for TimeOff

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