After spending well over two decades of fighting to bring George Moore’s short story The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs to the big screen, Glenn Close has triumphed (well, sort of). She has fended off many problems in her multiple duties as the producer, writer and lead actress of this film. Rodrigo García finally came on board, ending Close’s struggle to find a director. Production was once again stalled when Amanda Seyfried and Orlando Bloom pulled out of the show; their roles were given to Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson respectively. Everything had to go up from there, right? If only.
Albert Nobbs is the story of a woman posing as a male butler at an Irish hotel in the 1800s. Nobbs (Glenn Close) has spent over 30 years working at the establishment, saving every penny she earns. She dreams of using her earnings to open her own tobacco shop one day. However, her simple life and aspirations are revised when she meets Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a painter recently hired by the Dublin hotel. Although Nobbs is afraid of having her real gender uncovered, Nobbs finds solace in confiding in Page and even endeavors to seek a wife to secure her place in society.
Nobbs chooses the young maid, Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), as her target. She begins courting her, buying her fancy things. Meanwhile, Dawes has already started a relationship with the archetypical bad boy, Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson). Joe promises Helen a life of freedom and riches in America, miles away from the Irish slums. He goads her to continue seeing Nobbs as a way to extort money for their trip to America and to figure out just what it is the quiet butler is after.
This film lends itself to a lot of interesting dilemmas, but each character and scene fails to deliver the punch to carry the film along. Although Close has always resembled a man, she is still not manly enough for the role. There remains something terribly awkward about her; the appalling makeup does not help. Close’s depiction of a woman pretending to be a man with many secrets engenders little curiosity. At a pivotal moment when Albert reveals her grotesque and unsettling back story, Close shows no emotion. The disconnect merely confuses the audience. Close’s Oscar nomination just goes to show how trigger-happy the Academy is when it comes to a seemingly controversial character.
The supporting cast also fails to impress. They float in and out of the story without strengthening the plot. The lives of the characters are just as bleak and as washed-out as the Ireland in which they live. Although that may be the point, the movie still lacks substance. Wasikowska stays a young girl stuck in a love triangle that she has no say in. Her spat with Nobbs remains superficial. Aaron Johnson adds a bit more color to his volatile character but still misses the mark. The only face in the movie that is worth any notable comment is Janet McTeer’s performance as Hubert Page. Her portrayal of a man is utterly convincing; it was jarring to see her dressed as a woman at one point in the film. She paints a stirring portrait of a man who pretends to be a woman. Page loves the woman she has married. She respects Albert Nobbs’ situation and builds a powerful friendship. Her loyalty to Nobbs leads her to fulfill the dream and plan that Nobbs started before her death. McTeer, a British powerhouse, has finally earned the recognition she deserves with her Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Page.
Rodrigo García’s Oscar bait falls a little flat to say the least. The movie is about at as bland as Glenn Close’s face throughout the film. The film tries to break barriers for transgendered individuals, but only manages a slight crack at best (similar to Nobbs’ incident with a wall at the end of the film). Even the climax of the film comes and goes so anticlimactically; one feels robbed of a full storyline. This story should have been left as a short story. Even Janet McTeer’s brilliant performance fails to ignite this dull film.