Albert Nobbs has been Glenn Close’s passion project since she performed the title role in Simone Benmussa’s play, The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, in New York in 1982. Her commitment pays off in a beautiful, starring performance in the film she co-wrote and co-produced. With her small eyes peering out of Albert’s guarded face, Close demonstrates her sensitivity to the emotional nuances of being a woman in the late 1800s Dublin who spends her life living as a man.
Albert Nobbs is based on a novella by the Irish author George Moore. Moore makes a brief appearance as a character in the film as a guest at Morrison’s hotel, where Nobbs works as a waiter for the preemptory, social-climbing proprietor, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins). In Benmussa’s play, Moore narrated Albert’s story, providing a critical frame that guided spectators’ understanding of the compromises Albert had made to enable his own survival.
Here, what we learn of Albert’s past and the reasons for his life-long masquerade as a man come from stories Albert shares with Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). Page is a housepainter with a similar life, with whom Albert is forced to share his bed for a night at the hotel. When a bothersome flea forces Albert to strip off his clothes, he inadvertently reveals his female body to Page.
Fearful and humiliated by this exposure, the horrified Albert begs Page repeatedly through the night and the next day not to reveal the truth. When Albert’s whining becomes bothersome, Page puts down his paint brush, closes the door, and exposes his breasts to Albert, shocking him to his core. Albert is incredulous to have met someone like him, who carries such a deep and abiding secret. But the two passing women don’t fully share their stories until Albert seeks out Page and his wife, Cathleen, at the flat they share in the city.
Hubert Page, it turns out, fled an abusive marriage by stealing her husband’s clothes and his occupation, reinventing herself as a male house painter to make her way in the world. She meets Cathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), another woman living alone, and they share a home until people’s gossip forces them to marry. When Albert visits their cozy flat, it’s clear that Hubert and Cathleen have made a full and rich life together. Their physical and emotional intimacy is compelling and mysterious to Albert, who can’t quite contemplate a life beyond the structured, impersonal, servile routine to which he’s disciplined himself at Morrison’s.
With Page’s encouragement, Albert begins to dream about opening a tobacco shop finding a companion of his own. But Albert has lived unemotionally and impassively for so long, he has no idea how to court a woman or really how to interact in more than a professional manner with anyone at all.
In fact, when Page asks the waiter his name, Albert responds, “Albert.” Page clarifies, “No, your real name.” After a beat and a swallow, Albert says again, “Albert.” The wrenching moment underlines their differences. Page has recreated himself but kept his spirit intact. Albert has become the surface of his masquerade and can no longer fathom his own depths.
The film, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, provides Albert’s cross-dressed existence with a justification different from Benmussa’s adaptation. Albert haltingly tells Page that he was raised by a foster mother, whose financial circumstances soured, forcing them to mingle with a rougher crowd than those to which Albert was accustomed. He relates that as a young girl, he was assaulted by a gang of boys, and soon after, began passing as a male waiter. The film implies that sexual violence turned Albert toward the gender impersonation that became his life.
By contrast, Benmussa adapted Moore’s story to demonstrate the economic forces that would compel a woman to pass as a man. In her Brechtian, non-realist and non-psychologized play, Albert’s desperate need for economic survival explains his male attire and his single-minded devotion to counting his tips. He organizes all of his relationships according to financial necessity.
Close’s film, too, captures some of Albert’s Scrooge-like attachment to his coins, which he fingers luxuriously, records precisely in his journal, and buries under a floorboard in his room at the hotel. When he courts Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a chambermaid at Morrison’s, he sees her as a partner for his business endeavor and little more, because he can’t conceive of a relationship that isn’t driven by the cold imperative of cash. But that story about sexual violence makes him seem more a broken soul than someone wily enough to pass as a man to make his way.
Nonetheless, the film is a fine demonstration of gender as performance. At a masquerade ball at Morrison’s, to which only the hotel’s guests are invited to wear costumes, the inebriated Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), who lives among the staff, asks Albert what he’s dressed as. Confused, Albert responds, “I’m a waiter, sir,” to which the doctor replies, “And I am a doctor. We’re both disguised as ourselves.” The doctor has no idea how descriptive he’s been. He finally uncovers Albert’s truth when the waiter dies from a blow to his head, suffered during an altercation with Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson), the young man with whom he vies for Helen Dawe’s affections.
Mackins provides the masculine sexual energy of Albert Nobbs, and proves the only one at Morrison’s who sniffs something off about Albert. He tells Helen that Albert smells of money, but he intuits Albert’s lack of desire and his passion only for his cash. Though the illiterate laborer can’t articulate the problem, Joe is the only one who sees through Albert’s charade. That is, all except an odd-looking, nameless young boy, a guest of the hotel who stares at Albert wordlessly, and later looks at Hubert Page with the same unsettling, inarticulate knowingness.
But the mores of late-1800s Dublin are so constrained that none of the others would ever suspect that a person who looks like a man in fact is not. For instance, when Cathleen dies of typhoid fever, Albert and Hubert venture out costumed as women, wearing the dresses that Cathleen made as a kind of tribute to her life. In their experiment with nostalgia, they look awkward and ridiculous. Page’s dress is too small for the tall and bulky guy; his long arms stick out of the sleeves and the dress fails to conceal his painters’ boots, in which he lumbers along the Dublin streets. In his bonnet and skirt, Albert, too, looks silly and strange.
But a man passing them in the lane tips his hat to Hubert and Albert anyway, reading femininity from their dresses regardless of their inadequate gender performances. As Judith Butler would argue, the surface enactment is enough to signal gender, which for Hubert and Albert, if not for all of us, has no depth anyway. Watching the film, I had so accustomed myself to Albert and Hubert’s utterly persuasive gender performances that despite what I knew, their outing as women seemed sad and pathetic.
This moment of female impersonation wasn’t part of Benmussa’s play, and makes an uneasy addition to the story. Close plays Albert in that scene as entranced with his feminine attire, despite his clumsiness with its draping. Albert and Page walk on the beach in their women’s wear, and Albert suddenly seems to feel free. His bonnet falls onto his back and he runs ahead of Page, arms stretched out, catching the wind in his hair.
Page looks on, amused. For him, femininity has long lost its interest or its necessity. His grief over Cathleen’s death means his feminine impersonation is more about wearing things she touched than remembering his long-cast-off womanhood. After their brief beach venture, both men return to their workers’ clothing, resuming the costumes of lives they can’t be without.
Close and McTeer are utterly affecting in their performance of the men’s halting friendship. Albert can barely express himself; throughout the film, he casts his gaze down or away, rarely making eye contact. Watching Close slowly move Albert’s eyes to meet Hubert’s is a study in courage and need. And yet what we see is the shadow of a man, whose excitement is kindled not by emotional connection but by the possibility of rearranging her living situation to improve her economics.
Cathleen’s death provides an opportunity for Albert. He suggests that he replace Cathleen in Hubert’s home, so that they can keep their expenses low and live reasonably. Hubert protests, “But I loved her,” an emotion unintelligible to Albert.
Likewise, when he courts Helen Dawes, she’s frustrated and insulted that Albert plans to marry her without even venturing to kiss her. Startled by her complaint, Albert obliges by pecking her cheek, sending Helen running back to the virile if corrupt Joe Mackins.
Albert, in other words, is a bit of a fool at Morrison’s. When he’s not working, he sits on the landing between floors, looking up and down, scheming about his future and making notes about his money. Benmussa’s dialogue notes that Albert is neither up nor down, neither here nor there, a physical representation of his refusal to inhabit binary gender categories. Close sits on the landing in the film, too, but without the critical comment of the play, he seems simply strange.
The film, however, can paint the lives around Albert with richer contrasting detail. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a viscount who arrives at Morrison’s with an entourage of friends and women to drink and have sex. Mrs. Baker enables their assignations, and their unfettered heterosexual energy permeates the place. Even Mrs. Baker flirts with the doctor shamelessly, though he’s having an affair with another of the chambermaids.
Only Albert has no place in the hotel’s network of sexual intrigue. When Helen finds herself pregnant and she and Joe fight about their future, Albert tries to rescue her by offering to take care of her and the child. For his chivalry, Joe pushes him violently and he falls into the hallway wall, giving Albert the head injury that kills him. He dies alone, his money buried under his floor, where Mrs. Baker finds it and uses it to employ Hubert to paint her entire hotel.
The doctor who finds Albert shakes his head over the miserable circumstances in which people live. Albert’s death inspires him to change his own life; he runs off with his chambermaid and leaves Morrison’s Hotel. Helen has her baby, which she names Albert. And Hubert paints the hotel where his friend died, carrying with him the secret of Hubert’s sex and his own.
The film is smart and sweet, sad and atmospheric. If it doesn’t pack quite the intellectual and political punch of Benmussa’s play, at least Albert Nobbs lets us watch Close and McTeer in performances that should compel conversation about what it means to inhabit the strictures of gender. The difference between Close as, for only one example, Patty Hewes in her starring television role on Damages, in which she plays a female lawyer as manipulative shark, and Close as Albert, in his furtive, rigid performance of masculinity, tells us a lot not just about Close’s talent as an actor, but about how masculinity and femininity are always just constructions.
On the other hand, the film’s most wrenching moment is when Albert rips open her shirt to scratch that flea and reveals her breasts encased in a girdle. The way Close gathers her shirt and her covers her breasts, as if she’s trying to make them and herself disappear, illustrates her painful body shame. By contrast, when Hubert unbuttons his jacket and opens it wide to show Albert his bountiful, unfettered breasts, he demonstrates a lovely ease with the contradictions of his female flesh and his masculine self.
Albert Nobbs does a fine job of narrating the gains and losses incurred along the continuum the two characters represent. With its close-in cinematography and Dublin street sets that offer little hint of an “outside” to this late nineteenth century world, Albert Nobbs clarifies how history and society constrain possibilities for gender performance. For that alone, as well as the pleasure of Close’s and McTeer’s masterful performances, Albert Nobbs is an important and worthy pleasure.
The Feminist Spectator