Not everything is a poem. Every year, especially during the awards season, studios hurl films at us with period costumes that are very serious dramas stuffed downy with prestigious marquee actors and expect us simply to appreciate them as high art. Just because you stick something in a museum doesn’t make it art. The latest attempt at esteem-napping appears to be Albert Nobbs, a very serious drama set in 19th century Ireland, about a woman posing as a butler in a hotel hoping one day to raise enough money to open his own tobacconist’s shop. Because it’s Glenn Close in the titular role and because it’s got lots of folks decked out like a community theatre production of A Christmas Carol, and because it’s chock full of squalor and strife, we’re expected to somehow equate this with films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Transamerica. But honestly, this belongs more to the category of Juwanna Mann and Just One of the Guys. Wipe away all the makeup, and ignore the dramatic tone of the plot, and suddenly it becomes another cheap attempt to garner gold. And the sad part is, there is a talented transvestite in the film who deserves accolades, but it’s certainly not Glenn Close.
Squalor! Misery! Strife! All the hallmarks of this hallowed time of year. It’s hard to find a job in 19th century Dublin, where the tony positions can be lost with a simple spot on the uniform or at the whim of an arrogant uppercruster. Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is the cream of Morrison’s Hotel, spectacular at his job, with the kind of stuffy demeanor, servile nature, and attention to detail you’d crave in a manservant. Nobbs keeps a detailed accounting of every shilling and pence he earns, hoarding it under the floorboards with the hopes that one day he can open a tobacco shop. All seems to be going according to plan when suddenly, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), the proprietress of Morrison’s, forces Albert to share his bed with Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), the gruff painter hired to touch up some of the rooms. By virtue of me listing the actress who plays Hubert, I’ve suddenly given away the great Twelfth Night secret swaperooni. Yes, Hubert discovers that Albert Nobbs is actually a lady through a wayward flea in the corset, but soon Hubert reveals his own secret, that he too is actually a woman posing as a tradesman.
The two trade stories. Albert was an orphan who was terribly abused by his fellow orphans when he was a teenage girl — there seems to be strong implications of sexual abuse — and so to protect himself, he donned dude gear. Hubert Page was married to an abusive husband, and so took all his clothing and left him, and started life anew as Hubert Page. He arranged a marriage to a lovely woman named Kathleen (Bronagh Gallagher) who runs a dressmakers while Hubert paints for a living. Nobbs decides that he must marry, and so he seeks the affections of the beautiful and saucy maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), who’s currently bedding the scoundrel maintenance boy Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson).
Because it’s touching on gender roles, women’s rights, gay marriage, abusive relationships, unemployment, and class warfare, this seems like the kind of film we’re expected to champion, else we get lambasted with the sweet, sweet nectar of intolerance. But the fact of the matter is, Albert Nobbs has a terrible plot. Essentially, we should root for Nobbs, who was abused, because he wants to fool a young woman into his marriage bed, not because he wants to sleep with her, but so that his disguise can be all the more plausible. If you have to lie to get intimacy, you’re a terrible person. It doesn’t matter if you’re a skeevy married stockbroker trying to dip his wick or Glenn Close made up to look like Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man. Personally, I’m more repulsed by the idea of a elderly virgin trying to get with an under-aged scullery maid than anything, though they never set an age for Nobbs.
Now, I was duped by the prestige just like the rest of you. I saw Glenn Close on the cover and though, “Uh, oh. Meryl Streep and Glenn Close are going to duke it out and possibly get trumped by an Olsen sister!” The fact of the matter is that Glenn Close is terrible in this role. She can’t find a pitch or accent to stick to, she sound like a four-year old deepening her voice on the telephone to fool the adult on the other side. Her characterization seems to be one of wide-eyed mannequin. All this would be acceptable possibly if we weren’t supposed to believe that he’d been faking being a man for four decades at the very least.
And if it weren’t for Janet McTeer, who is simply magnificent as Hubert Page. McTeer has the walk, the mannerisms, the attitude of being a fella, even when she’s doing the cliched “Dress Shirt Boob Showcase,” as if the only way you can prove that you’re a woman is by showing your breasts. And, it’s not all bluster, she has moments of heartbreak and woe that are just as powerful. McTeer’s so awesome, she points out all the flaws and cracks in Close’s Nobby facade. Page seems like the only character in the film with any sort of layers. Garcia filled his film with all the usual Irish period suspects — Brendan Gleeson as a drunk doctor, Brenda Fricker as the wise but stern cook, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a rich lord because this is a period pic about gender bending and sex and so that’s the rule — as well as giving a few young stars their scenes. Kick-Ass and his snaggly-teefs are rather dreadful as the allegedly charming Joe Macken, who attempts Newsie by way of Stanley Kowalski and fails worse than his attempts at crimefighting. It’s nice to see a part where Mia Wasikowska finally doesn’t have to look somber, but it’s a shallow role.
I feel bad when I couch these reviews in terms of Oscar nominations, because no amount of gold statues or critic society accolades should factor into the quality of the film. But Albert Nobbs is clearly an attempt at statue-grabbery. You can tell because their “featured” song by Sinead O’Connor isn’t worked into the narrative, but comes over the end credits. People are going to be shocked when Glenn Close doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, and that’s because they haven’t seen the movie. And the shame is that they’ll miss an actual career defining and outstanding performance by Janet McTeer.