It goes without saying that 19th century Ireland was a tough place to make a living for any mere commoner. To be a single woman in that era with no family or husband required extraordinary resourcefulness to survive. One way to get the same opportunities as a man was by pretending to bea man. But what are the long term consequences of such a long term disguise? Meet Albert Nobbs – a middle-aged woman passing as a male butler, on one hand desperately seeking to fit in, and on the other to finally escape servitude and find a mate.
The story opens with a nervous and gregarious hotelier Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) fretting over well-to-do guests in the dining room. The servants dote on the wealthy guests with stressed precision. Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a beautiful young servant at the hotel, does her best to hide her disdain for the position. Calmly and perfectly poised stands Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close), masterfully executing the role of butler, but secretly pining to escape and open his own tobacco shop. Later, when Albert is forced to share his room with the housepainter Hubert (Janet McTeer), Albert’s ruse is discovered. At first horrified, Albert is re-assured when Hubert reveals he is a woman pretending to be a man, too. And not only is Hubert pulling it off, he is also happily married. Albert’s horror at being discovered quickly transforms into insatiable curiosity: how on earth has Hubert found a home, a wife, and a future despite the subterfuge?
Thus begins Albert’s journey of self-discovery and also his quest to find a wife to share his life and dreams. Would it be impossible to find a wife, open a little tobacco shop and throw off the chains of working for the hotel? It is a daunting task. For Albert, who has lived as a man for his whole life, living as a woman is out of the question. So he must find a woman, and the only woman that will do is the young and beautiful Helen. To complicate matters – Helen has already started to see Joe (Aaron Johnson), the impetuous young handyman at the hotel that lied his way into the job. Albert Nobb’s quest to win Helen’s hand is not easy – how can he court a woman when he has avoided conspicuous displays of sexuality for his whole life? How can he express his sexuality without revealing his disguise? Does he reveal he is a woman before or after he is married?
Glenn Close’s commitment to the role is astonishing. She is not only entirely believable as a neurotic, introverted man – but also as a man in a state of arrested development – desperately trying to court a woman for the first time in his life. Her performance is the best thing about the film, and it is no surprise she was just nominated for an Oscar for the role. It may be the most impressive role she has ever performed, because she completely disappears into Albert. He is a man so quietly repressed that audiences cannot help but feel for him. Janet McTeer also pulls off being a man as Hubert, though an entirely different kind. Where Albert is kindly restrained and pinched, Hubert is strapping – displaying a working class macho and seeming disregard for a world that has long since stopped questioning who he is.
It is the story itself that audiences might find challenging. The world of Albert Nobbs is brutal and unforgiving, with many kindnesses repaid in cruelty, and dreams always frustratingly out of reach. For Albert, the few simple pleasures in life such as eating chocolate in a restaurant with Helen, or spending time with Hubert and his wife seem to be his peak. To watch Albert go through a late adolescence with such brutal consequences is excruciating. It is tough to face what life has to offer for him.
In the end, it is the human failures of those around Albert that determine the tragic course of events. Despite his “better” station in life, was Albert’s long-term charade even worth it? In the end, audiences may share Albert’s disappointment, an unfair result which definitely was not his fault.