THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
She's not a man, baby! Glenn Close is Albert Nobbs.
Albert Nobbs is the story of people who are not free to be themselves, and therefore live duplicitous lives. Glenn Close plays the title character, who works as a butler in a Dublin hotel during the 19th century. Albert is actually a woman, but has been living as a man for so long that the lie has essentially become the truth. Aware that she will never be married and able to depend financially on a husband, she began dressing up in order to get decent-paying jobs unavailable to women. And now, she is simply Albert to everyone, none of whom are any the wiser. Quiet, laconic, and reserved, Albert's sole bright spot in life seems to be seeing a young maid, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), with whom she's secretly in love, and fantasizing about opening up a tobacco shop with her some day.
Albert's life changes when she befriends a painter named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). It turns out that Hubert is also a woman passing as a man, although in her case, it's so that she can be married to her true love, Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher). To Albert, this is a revelation, suggesting a way of life that had never occurred to her. Suddenly, the dreams of being with Helen seem attainable. This new-found confidence spurs Albert to finally start trying to pursue goals, only to discover that it isn't as easy as it seems.
I have to admit that this movie made me think. Most of us, myself included, simply go about our lives. We are who we are, and we have the freedom to live more or less as we choose. (There are exceptions, of course, but I'm speaking generally.) Albert does not have that option. She must hide her true identity from everyone around her, and even, to a degree, from herself. The ruse only works if she completely suppresses her authentic self. That's a tragic thought. Can you imagine waking up in the morning and feeling as though you had to fool the world? I like the trajectory of Albert's story. Hubert has found a way to circumvent things, which proves to be an inspiration. You can tell that Albert never even considered that there could be another way. The real person inside the made-up identity finally starts to emerge. At the same time, this new attitude brings its own set of challenges. It turns out to perhaps not be the miracle solution Albert imagines. The ups and downs of the plot kept me involved. I rooted for Albert to find some semblance of happiness, just as I kept imagining how horrible it would be if I were in a situation that required me to pretend to be something I am not.
Glenn Close is really terrific in the title role. She captures every nuance of repression and sublimation in the character, making you feel the personal prison Albert has constructed. Janet McTeer is also quite good. Her Hubert is a joyous person who has found happiness, cherishes it, and wants to help her new friend find it too. The two actresses have strong chemistry together; it is their rapport that really drives the story.
As compelling as the themes are, and as superb as the performances are, Albert Nobbs suffers from a fairly substantial problem: neither Close nor McTeer are entirely convincing as men. The hair, makeup, and costume departments have done as much as they can, but it's never entirely realistic. (Albert, in fact, often has a bizarre creepy/plastic appearance.) Because I didn't completely buy them as men, it felt a little weird that the other characters in the movie did. It's not the fault of the actresses, just a product of illusion only going so far. I also wish some of the supporting characters had been a little more developed, and that the pace was a bit less slow at times.
Still, this is a film worth seeing. It's a poignant tale of a person who just wants to be happy, to live in freedom, to be herself. Most of us take that concept for granted. Albert does not, and can not. Her journey is touching.
( out of four)
Albert Nobbs is rated R for some sexuality, brief nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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