Our Rating: ★★★★☆
L Factor: Gender Bender
Short Take: A woman lives as a man to survive in 19th Century Dublin
Alternate Titles:
Year: 2011
Duration: 113 min
Language: UK, Ireland/English
Director: Rodrigo García
Writer: Glenn Close, John Banville, George Moore, Gabriella Prekop, István Szabó
Starring: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer

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Albert NobbsThere are very few films in wide release that we can categorize as tragedy. Albert Nobbs, an independent film that features Hollywood powerhouse actress Glenn Close, is truly a sad and tragic tale. It also deals with issues of gender identification and sexual orientation, following the stories of two women who live their lives passing as men.

Close plays the title character Albert Nobbs, a woman who works as a hotel butler, living as a man in order to make a living in 19th Century Dublin. Her face is a mask, not betraying any emotion. It is as if she wants to purposefully fade into the woodwork, living in fear that her secret will be revealed. It doesn’t appear that she particularly wants to be a man. She has just done this all of her adult life to survive a very cruel world for poor women.

Close plays Albert brilliantly (and received an Oscar nomination for best actress). Her eyes and face always portray wariness, never stepping out of the character that Albert has created for herself. It is like she is imprisoned by her own life, incredibly alone, with few connections to others.

Then life begins to look like it has some different possibilities. Hubert (Janet McTeer, The Songcatcher) comes by to do some painting in the hotel, and Albert is astonished to find that Hubert is also a woman passing as a man. The two of them couldn’t be more different. Hubert is noticeably happy with life, even flirtatious with women in public, with a wife at home. McTeer was also nominated for an Oscar for supporting actress and creates a wonderful contrast to the small, quiet little Albert. Hubert is a big working class bloke with a much greater presence in the world.

When Albert meets someone like herself, someone she can confide in, we see her come alive, with a sparkle in her eyes. No longer does she look down, and she actually begins to speak to other people. Hubert tells her that, “You don’t have to be anything but what you are.” Albert evens starts thinking about taking a wife of her own, opening a small shop with the money that she has carefully scraped together over the years.

But as the rest of the tragedy plays out, we see that it is not that simple. Hubert is in love with his wife Kathleen, whereas Albert clearly has no idea about what love or even sex entails. He sees marriage as a business arrangement and doesn’t understand why a young maid at the hotel might not be interested in marrying him. Albert is astonished when she confronts him with the fact that she would never consider marrying someone who had not even kissed her.

There have been many historical cases of women who passed as men to avoid the economic realities of the day – marry, become a prostitute, or starve. The story of Albert Nobbs was written by George Moore back in 1918, and it is not primarily a film about transgender or lesbian issues. In the character of Hubert, we do see a woman who has happily embraced a lesbian lifestyle, but in Albert’s story, the focus is on the brutal facts in a world without safety nets for the poor and working class, especially women. Although Albert has survived thus far, she doesn’t have the kind of life any of us would wish – and further tragedy awaits. (AB)