Talking Movies

April 23, 2012

Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close realises a lifetime’s ambition and finally turns her one-woman off-Broadway show based on George Moore’s novella into a feature film.
 
Close plays Albert Nobbs, a conscientious but taciturn waiter at the Morrison Hotel in Dublin in the year, well, oddly it’s never really specified, just sometime after 1898. Albert’s great secret is that he is really a woman. This is the moment at which suspension of disbelief needs a crane because the make-up job just makes Close look a bit odd, not like a man. The accent is a cannier choice, a soft London accent that doesn’t draw attention to the lightness of its timbre. But if ever a film was based around a make-up job it’s this movie, and the over-worked crane for suspending disbelief quite simply buckles early on when there is a shocking revelation that another male character is also a woman in disguise; a shock that is only if you haven’t immediately thought on seeing the character that it’s a woman.
 
John Banville co-wrote the script with Close and Gabriella Prekop and perhaps that’s the reason for the lack of driving plot. Nobbs is encouraged by her confidante Janet McTeer, who has set up house with Bronagh Gallagher, to use her substantial savings to open her own tobacconist’s shop. At this point Nobbs begins to think of enticing fellow Morrison servant Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) to join her in the enterprise, oblivious to the fact that Helen is only walking out with her to scrounge money for the fare to America. That plan is the brainchild of roguish Joe (Aaron Johnson), who via some delightful percussive maintenance on the Morrison’s misbehaving boiler has insinuated himself into the staff and then between Helen’s sheets. If that sounds half-interesting beware, this film’s deadly dull and never resolves the contradiction between its Shakespearean-obvious cross-dressing and its otherwise realistic universe.
 
Director Rodrigo Garcia coaxes good performances from his cast but McTeer, Johnson and Wasikowska come undone by virtue of their ropey accents far too frequently; even though McTeer outshines Close by virtue of having a more assertive character. I don’t know why Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is in the film as a debauched Wildean lord, except to pinpoint the class-based moral hypocrisy of Pauline Collins’ hotel owner, but such lack of purpose or context is everywhere. Are McTeer and Gallagher a lesbian couple or not? Does Nobbs think Helen will live with her as a companion or as a lover? These vital questions are never clearly answered until it’s far too late. Even more baffling is the politically de-contextualised Dublin setting. Why not just set it in London and eliminate the ropey accents, if not the unbelievable cross-dressing disguises?
 
If you really want to see Close on great form in a late career sparkler I suggest you look at a DVD box-set of Damages.
 
2/5

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