Safety Blankets: Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs
Starring Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska & Aaron Johnson
Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) works as a butler in a prominent turn-of-the century Dublin Hotel where the wealthy socialites of the era come to drink and act entitled. Professional and quiet, Nobbs dependably serves his snobby clientele and avoids any unnecessary gossip whispered by fellow co-workers. He purposefully bleeds into the ornate background, only noticed by his peers in absence or by guests when they are greeted with their favorite flowers or brand of whisky. This distance and emotional reserve helps mask a secret Nobbs has been carrying around for two decades: Albert is really a woman posing as a man.
Rodrigo Garcia’s flatly composed and uninspiring film seeks to explore issues of gender and repression through Albert’s conflicted experience inside this Upstairs/Downstairs-style fishbowl. In the opening moments, as Albert goes through his meticulous daily work routine, the film oozes with isolation producing a ripe feeling of stasis that makes the character immediately intriguing. It seems this cycle, which includes Albert hoarding tips under the floorboard, could potentially go on forever. That is until a painter and fellow woman-in-hiding, Mr. Page (Janet McTeer) shows up and discovers Albert’s secret. Their friendship inevitably complicates the situation, especially as Albert tragically attempts to emulate Page’s fabricated public lifestyle. There is no sense of time in Albert Nobbs; only stiff bodies drifting through stuffy spaces, lost souls looking to hide their true selves under the cover of emotional safety blankets. Almost every character in the film, including a young maid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska) who becomes the object of Albert’s affection, sees hope in all the wrong faces and places. Garcia’s flaccid direction only makes this obvious motif all the more tiresome, signaling character flaws and pitfalls a mile away. As Helen and her degenerate boyfriend take advantage of Albert’s advances, Albert Nobbs cements its shift from serviceable character study to simplistic melodrama. The real problem here is that Albert Nobbs consistently shies away from its true core: the complex dynamic between Albert and Mr. Page. During their scenes together, Close and McTeer (both nominated for Oscars) work in perfect harmony to capture the moments when parallel experiences overlap in time. After the trauma of Albert’s past finally comes into focus, Page’s response conveys tenderness and honesty the rest of the film fails to achieve. When the hotel doctor (Brendan Gleeson) tells Albert early on that, “we are both disguised as ourselves,” it only hints at the thematic nuance Close and McTeer achieve with merely a few glances. Beyond their guise the rest of Albert Nobbs is a laughably corny attempt at serious cinema. -Albert Nobbs is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas and La Jolla Village Cinemas.