In Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close plays the film’s title character, a woman, who dresses like a man, is thought to be a man by the other characters, goes by Albert, and works as a waiter at a posh Irish hotel. She has a cache of money under the floorboards of her hotel room, and enters all her earnings in a small notebook. Late in the movie, she calculates how much it’s going to cost to continue to court Helen (Mia Wasikowska, as great in this as she was in Jane Eyre), a maid at the hotel. She’s appalled by the cost–calculated over a year, it could add up to over seven pounds! After a moment, she sits back and says something like “I’ll propose after three months, then.”
It’s a comic moment in a film that needs them–Rodrigo Garcia has built a wonderful film on stillness, on Albert’s unblinking gaze, as she tries to figure out a world she finds utterly bewildering. Her world is defined by two reactions: terror, and incomprehension. As we learn her story, we wonder if the two aren’t related.
As a fourteen year old, we learn, she was assaulted by a gang of five guys. Shortly thereafter, she saw an advertisement for a waiter–she got hold of a second-hand suit, and began her career as Albert Nobbs. She seems completely clueless about human sexuality. As she ponders marrying Helen, her biggest worry seems to be whether she should reveal herself as a woman before the wedding, or let it wait until their wedding night. What people actually do on their wedding night–or how Helen will respond to such a revelation–seem well beyond her powers of comprehension. She imagines Helen as a hostess for the tobacconist’s business she intends to start and is saving towards. She imagines Helen serving tea. When Helen, in frustration, kisses her, saying “that’s how I like to be kissed,” Albert recoils in shock and confusion. Is she really that naive, that innocent? Or is it a deeply repressed trauma? What exactly was the nature of that assault?
Early in the film, Albert is asked by the hotel’s proprietress Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) to share her bed with Hubert Page, a house painter who’s been hired to spruce up a few of the rooms. Albert demurs, but Mrs. Baker runs roughshod over her objections, and so, retiring for the night, she finds the tall, rough-and tumble Hubert curled up on her bed. She tries to crawl in next to him, fully clothed, but, plagued by flea bites, has to undress briefly to scratch. Page wakes, sees her breasts, laconically tells her she needn’t worry; he won’t reveal her secret. The next day, Hubert tells her why. Hubert is also a woman, passing as a man (played brilliantly by Janet McTeer).
Albert suddenly finds herself with something she seems never to have had previously, a friend. She meets Hubert and she meets Hubert’s wife (Bronagh Gallagher). A wife, a comfortable home, respectability–that’s what Albert wants, and that’s what she pursues, in the person of Helen. In one wonderful scene of liberation, she and Hubert dress up as women, and stroll together down a beach, free to be themselves, clomping about in what are for them strange and uncomfortable shoes.
We know this all will turn out badly. Helen thinks of Albert as an odd duck, a weird old man; her interest in him is entirely mercenary, and she’s sleeping with another servant, Joe (Aaron Johnson). When Helen becomes pregnant, Joe can’t handle it, tells her he’s going to leave her. Helen is astonished when Albert, the strange man she’s been using, is untroubled by her pregnancy. For one brief moment, it appears that Albert will succeed, that she will improbably negotiate all the gender confusion of the situation and end up happily with (somehow) Helen. But no.
The ending of the film is deeply tragic, and the resolution, although unexpected, is also unsurprising. It’s a quietly powerful film, blessed with magnificent performances. At the end, the hotel’s doctor (the magnificent Brendon Gleason) shakes his head over the sad and private lives of his friends. His benediction closes the story of hidden, tormented, only occasionally joyful lives.