“Albert Nobbs” (2012). Cast: Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker, Brendan Gleeson, John Rhys Meyers, Bronagh Gallagher, Mark Williams, James Greene, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Maria Doyle Kennedy. Director: Rodrigo Garcia. Screenplay: Glenn Close, John Banville and Gabriella Prekop. Story: George Moore. www.albertnobbs-themovie.com/#
We all have dreams for ourselves in life. Many of us also probably have some pretty well-defined preconceptions about how those dreams – and our lives in general – are supposed to play out. But then sometimes we also get surprised at what we’re presented with when those aspirations manifest, particularly in terms of the impact they have on the identities we hold of ourselves. These are among the many themes that come up for review in the thought-provoking new drama, “Albert Nobbs.”
Hotel waiter Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is an oft-described strange little man. But then that’s probably because he’s not a man at all. Rather, Albert is a middle-aged woman who, because of the need to fend for herself financially, has been intentionally disguising herself as a member of the opposite sex since she was 14. And, thanks to her ability to successfully pull off this ruse, Albert has managed to set aside a tidy nest egg while working as part of the wait staff at Dublin’s Morrison’s Hotel. It’s a perfect place for her to work, too; the pay and perks are good, and the place holds so many deceptions of its own that it provides ample, discreet coverage for her own secret.
By focusing on her financial security, though, Albert has paid little attention to her personal life, particularly where romance is concerned. Also, she’s become so adept at passing herself off as a man that she has, for all practical purposes, come to regard herself as one. But, were the truth of things to come out, she’d face certain ostracism from conservative 1890s Irish society.
All that changes, however, when the hotel’s owner, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), hires a painter, Hubert Page, to do some work at her establishment. She gives Hubert permission to share Albert’s quarters while doing the work, a prospect that causes Albert considerable consternation. The strange little man quietly struggles to hide her anxiety, but that uneasy trepidation quickly turns to outright panic when Hubert discovers her roommate’s true identity. Albert is terrified about the ramifications of this unplanned revelation – that is, until she realizes that she and Hubert (Janet McTeer) share the same secret.
Albert and Hubert become friends, spending time and sharing personal confidences with one another. Albert is particularly intrigued by Hubert’s description of the happy life she’s built with a loving wife, Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher). Suddenly, Albert is able to picture a whole new life for herself, too. She envisions using her savings to buy a tobacconist’s shop, one that has an adjacent living area that would be ideal to share with a bride. Hubert encourages Albert to follow her dreams and seek the same kind of happiness that she has found, even going so far as to suggest that Albert pursue a relationship with the lovely young Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), one of the hotel’s flirtatious chamber maids. Albert, who has had her eye on Helen for some time, concurs and decides to initiate the courting process.
Of course, wooing the object of her affection poses two challenges to Albert: (1) can she compete with her main rival, Joe Mackens (Aaron Johnson), the hotel’s strapping young handyman, who clearly has his sights set on Helen?; and (2) how does she break the news of her true gender status to Helen? Albert steps into uncharted territory in considering these possibilities, and she wonders how to proceed. Hubert is able to provide some guidance, but Albert is largely on her own in this endeavor, a path that has many potential rewards – and pitfalls.
Albert’s proficiency in envisioning possibilities makes her a highly competent conscious creator. Once inspired, she’s able to picture, with remarkable clarity, what she wants to achieve. But then that shouldn’t come as any surprise, since she’s been doing just that for quite a long time. When faced with having to support herself at a young age, Albert learned of an opportunity to work as a waiter at a Masons’ hall. She believed she was capable of handling the job, and, despite the obvious risks, she pursued it, successfully landing the position. The experience she earned in that job allowed her to obtain work later on in fine dining establishments in places like Manchester and London, putting her on firm footing when she decided to seek a position in Dublin.
Having successfully tackled the challenges in her work life, as well as accumulating a respectable degree of savings, Albert has positioned herself well to take on the challenges of reshaping her personal life. And now that she’s witnessed the happiness that Hubert has successfully attained, Albert believes that she can create that for herself as well. But, given that she’s on unfamiliar turf, Albert’s not sure how to proceed. Doubt begins creeping into her thoughts, and since doubt is one of the forces that can undercut the conscious creation process, Albert is potentially setting herself up for disappointment by allowing this. She even seems to recognize the impact that this is having on her plans, so she unwittingly attempts to compensate for it by micromanaging her materialization efforts, causing her increased levels of aggravation and even more doubt. Under these circumstances, she would have fared far better by putting out her intents to the Universe – her divine conscious creation collaborator – and allowing it to bring forth the conditions that allow her to realize her goals rather than trying to discern the specifics of how it should happen all on her own. By doing this, she runs the risk of working against herself, creating frustration that further undermines her efforts and ultimately brings her no closer to her desired objectives.
Through her experiences, Albert must come to terms with the fact that the fulfillment of our goals doesn’t always follow the prescribed forms that we envision, even if the essence of what we desire is eventually achieved. In circumstances like these, we may not even be aware that an objective has fundamentally been met until well after the fact or until someone points it out to us, mainly because we’re so focused on the outcome conforming to predetermined parameters that we can’t see the result for what it inherently is. This, essentially, becomes a case of the proverbial inability to see the forest for the trees, a practice that I call semi-conscious creation. Indeed, things might not always seem to be what they genuinely are (something that the protagonist should already be well-acquainted with), and, when we’re confronted with such conditions, they sometimes bring hard lessons, teachings that serve as cautionary tales for us all.
The impact of all of the foregoing can be considerable, especially when it comes to our perceptions of our own identities. We may well be more than the limited selves we see ourselves as, a notion that can have far-reaching implications. The title character comes to see this for herself, allowing her to move beyond who she believes herself to be, and in myriad ways at that. And, even if envisioned outcomes don’t always match preconceptions and/or result in full-fledged fruition, at least having the ability to view ourselves in expanded ways enables us to experience developments in our consciousness and personal growth that exceed previously constrained expectations.
The marketing campaign behind “Albert Nobbs” makes it look like fare suitable primarily for those keen on Masterpiece Theatre and pithy high-brow stage dramas. However, the picture is remarkably more “accessible” than that, an engaging offering for moviegoers other than those who wear tweed suits 24/7. It’s a heartfelt drama with a wealth of colorful characters in a wonderful period piece setting, with fine Oscar-nominated performances by Close and, especially, McTeer. The sound quality could definitely be better at times, though, especially when the players turn up the brogue factor, so sit close to the screen if the theater at which you’re viewing it has an audio system that leaves something to be desired.
The picture has been earning its share of awards season nominations, though it has yet to take home any hardware. In addition to its Oscar nods for Close and McTeer, the film has also been nominated in the Academy’s makeup category, a distinction it also earned in the Critics Choice Awards competition. Close and McTeer have also received their share of honors in other contests, with Close receiving Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and McTeer earning accolades in the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Independent Spirit Award contests. The film was also honored with a Golden Globe nod for its best original song, “Lay Your Head Down,” a lovely, lyrical piece composed by Brian Byrne (music) and Close (words) and sung by Sinéad O’Connor.
I was especially taken with two quotes from this film. As Albert’s colleague, Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), the hotel’s resident physician, observes in a scene at a costume ball, “We’re all disguised as ourselves.” It’s a point that, arguably, has some merit, though, to me, it suggests a desire to hide, one that goes against our true nature. In that regard, I was actually more heartened by one of Hubert’s observations: “You don’t have to be anything but what you are.” It’s a statement that speaks to the core themes explored in this film – and, I would hope, to the core of our being as well.
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.