by Michael Koresky
Dir. Rodrigo Garcia, UK/Ireland, Roadside Attractions
There’s really only one thing you need to know about Albert Nobbs: that it was a long-gestating dream project for Glenn Close. She acted the title role—of a woman passing as a male butler in late 19th-century Dublin—on stage in the early eighties, and ever since has been tirelessly trying to bring the based-in-fact story to the screen. So it’s more than just a vanity piece (though it most definitely is that): it’s a cause, an inevitability, a film you simply have to like or else you’ll be putting out the final embers of its grand dame’s long-burning passion. That the film turns out to be wispy and insubstantial shouldn’t really be the main complaint against it—the modesty of director Rodrigo Garcia’s filmmaking is perhaps its most charming trait. But, almost by design, Close’s star turn comes across as little more than a stunt to be gawked at. Though her performance is implosive rather than overly expressive (Nobbs is a cowering little man, trapped under a bowler that appears to weigh a ton), she dominates the film. One can only imagine an unknown actor truly disappearing into the role, as Hilary Swank was able to way back in 1999, when the Boys Don’t Cry lead came with no star baggage.
We first see Albert from behind, smoothing the hair on the back of his head. With her flattened-nose makeup, melancholy eyes, and wide, pale features, Close here resembles no one so much as the great bow-legged actor James Whitmore as she totters around Morrison’s, the hotel where Albert is the reclusive head butler. However, Close’s slightly plasticine face (if you’ve seen her recently on the series Damages, you’ve also seen nary a wrinkle on her taut brow and cheeks) makes her look more bewildered than beaten down by life, appearing less poignant than otherworldly, like an alien being stuffed into a suit as a strange approximation of a human. Albert’s one defining trait is his desire to open up a little tobacco shop; if Close wasn’t so clearly shattered and immobile from the beginning, then Albert’s ambitions might have helped make the film into a heartfelt melodrama, something like Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, in which a put-upon bar hostess desperately tries to start her own business. But there’s no strength or vividness to Albert’s pipe dreams, just an actor’s self-impressed imitation of will-power. Close makes for quite the odd duck, but Albert is never as intriguing as the film would like to believe (all the other characters often make clear their fascination with him just in case we weren’t convinced; “I think you are the strangest man I ever met!” says one with queasy admiration.)
With Close as the constant center of attention, most of the folks who satellite around her necessarily get lost, which is fatal for the film since a cipher of a protagonist like Nobbs lives or dies on the strength of her costars. Brendan Gleeson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, as a lusty doctor and an enigmatic count, both frequent hotel guests, breeze by without being allowed to make much of an impression; and Pauline Collins, the once and forever Shirley Valentine, reprises her chatterbox routine as the hotel’s owner. Janet McTeer as Hubert, a painter also passing as a man but unlike Nobbs with the benefit of a linebacker’s body (and an in-the-know wife to boot), manages to make something here, but it’s largely because she is blessed with the film’s most outspoken, crowd-pleasing role. The two most narratively crucial side characters are the weakest: Joe (Aaron Johnson), a boiler-room stud with great abs and very few shirts who, like any good Irish lad wants to go to America; and Helen (Mia Wasikowska), the mousy maid whom he seduces both romantically and in a plot to steal Albert’s secret fortune, saved up for decades. Their machinations, which lead to the film’s tragic climax, come across as plot afterthoughts, and the actors seem all at sea, especially Wasikowska, who, though she’s been impressive before, is reduced in this film to a series of scrunched bunny-rabbit faces, and participates in the film’s most embarrassing moment, an emotional slap-fight in the park with Albert that looks more like a round of patty-cake.
Her repartee with Close, which ought to be the heart of the film, turns out to be its greatest deficiency—and the clue to the film’s essential timidity with its own sexual politics. Based on the suggestions of Hubert, Albert decides to actively pursue Helen as a possible wife, as a means to establish an identity and a sense of normalcy in the community before opening the little shop. Yet it’s never made clear whether Albert is being opportunistic or genuinely desires Helen, neither in the script nor in the timid, asexual performances of Close and Wasikowska. The fact that Albert craves domesticity, normalcy, but never the companionship of another person—which the film attempts to explain away with the revelation of a past rape—could have itself made for a poignant portrait, but for a film otherwise preoccupied with sex (there’s so much hanky-panky glimpsed in the various rooms of the hotel that it often feels more like a brothel), it’s particularly conspicuous.
Most disappointingly, perhaps, is that this very personal project for Glenn Close has become a very impersonal project for Rodrigo Garcia. He has made a name for himself as an unabashed purveyor of remarkably genuine and uncondescending contemporary women’s weepies like Nine Lives and Mother and Child, but here he disappears behind star worship. In those earlier films, Garcia maintained a fine balance between portraits of emotional containment and hard-earned, sentimental catharses. But in Albert Nobbs there are only extremes: when Close finally breaks out of her buttoned-down parody of repression, it’s for a scene when Albert, in a dress and bonnet, runs across a beach, arms stretched out in triumph. It’s less a visual shorthand for genuine liberation than for an actress grasping for her Oscar.