Albert Nobbs (2011): Glenn Close as a Man in Oscar-Nominated Performance

There are many different reasons to see a particular film, and the main one in the case of “Albert Nobbs,” Rodrigo Garcia’s new period drama, is Glenn Close, who dominates every frame of the story, which, unfortunately, is too simple.


A chronicle of a woman passing as a man just in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland, “Albert Nobbs” provides a good showcase for this talented and intelligent actress, who has not had such a meaty role on the big screen for a long time.

(Over the past decade or so, Close has appeared on stage, in the musical “Sunset Boulevard,” and is now on TV in the popular drama series, “Damages”).

In the hands of another actress, the title role could have easily become overly theatrical, burdened with all the histrionics we have come to associate with performers playing gender-bending roles.  (The list is too long to recite here).

Thus, the first and best thing to be said about Glenn Close is that she renders an admirably subtle and restrained performance, one that gains cumulative power from the many small details of which it is composed.  I just wih the character, as scripted, was more interesting.

End result is an emotionally stirring performance that places Close at the forefront of Oscar contenders this year, though it is only October, and we have not seen yet Close’s peer, the incomparable Meryl Streep, embodying the title role on the upcoming biopic, “The Iron Lady.”

The film is directed by Rodrigo Garcia, based on a script that Glenn Close, Man Booker, prize-winning novelist John Banville, and Gabriella Prekop, adapted from a short story by Irish author George Moore, titled “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs.”

Close obviously feels strong emotional connection with the character of Albert Nobbs, though it’s hard to understand why.  In 1982, before she became a movie star, she performed Simone Benmussa’s theatrical interpretation of the aforementioned George Moore story.  Her turn in the Off-Broadway production generated rave reviews and garnered Close a well-deserved Obie Award.

Most of the tale is set within Dublin’s most luxurious hotel, a place designed for the privileged class.  When we first meet Albert, he is a shy butler, keeping on to himself—for a very good reason. As it turns out, Albert has been hiding a secret for a long time—his sexual identity.

The context is crucial: Ireland in the 19th century is a rigid and conservative place, especially for women. To keep herself from destitution, Albert spends over 20 years pretending to be man.

By now it would seem that nothing could spoil her immaculate ruse. However, when a handsome painter arrives at the hotel, Albert is tempted to let the mask she’s worn for decades slip away.

As she instigates the possibility of getting more intimate to the artist, Albert attempts to secure the assistance of Helen (Mia Wasikowska), one of the hotel’s young maids.  For her part, Helen is also distracted by murmurs of the heart, the appearance of a handsome handyman (Aaron Johnson).

Some thirty years after donning men’s clothes, she finds herself trapped in a prison of her own making.  Can Albert liberate herself from her own chains?  A slight feminist streak runs through this interpretation. The movie aims at showing a portrait of a courageous woman who was well ahead of her times, but there’s considerable gap between the tale’s ambition and actual execution.

Rodrigo Garcia, the son of famed novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is attracted to stories featuring strong yet vulnerable women.  He has previously directed the feature films “Things You Can Tell Just by looking at Her”(2000), “Ten Tiny Love Stories”(2001), “Nine Lives” (2005), “Passengers,” (2008), and, most recently, “Mother and Child” (2009).