Saturday, May 19, 2012

Saturday at the Movies #90 - Albert Nobbs

Historical romances with the heroine disguised as male for part of the story have been among my favorites for ages. Not that Albert Nobbs is a romance; far from it. There is the full immersion in the historical world, though. This time around, it's nineteenth century Ireland, in a hotel that's not the best and not the worst to be found, but it's getting by. Getting by as well is the titular Albert, played to perfection by Glenn Close. Perfectly proper, regimented, Albert has spent his working life as a waiter, his only respite his vague dreams of opening a tobacconist's shop at some point in a hazy future he's never measured. In lonely moments, he counts out his savings and imagines snatches of the life he might have.

One suspects Albert might have gone on like that were it not for the visiting Mr. Hubert Page, a house painter, whom the owner boards in Albert's room, despite Albert's protests. Albert, a woman who has been living as male since her teens, finds the close proximity too much to bear and the anxiety is palpable, especially when Hubert discovers Albert's secret. Albert cringes, both terrified and apologetic, but Hubert does nothing.

Soon enough, we find out why. Hubert, played to perfection by Janet McTeer, is also a female living as male, though with one important difference - a wife. Albert finds this fascinating, and as a restrained friendship forms, begins to add the idea of a wife to his tobacco shop dreams. His sight soon set on a maid, the blonde and pretty Helen, who is infatuated with the feckless Joe.

I won't go farther for those who haven't yet seen Albert Nobbs, but the real story here is in what isn't said. Silent looks say more than words in many cases. One scene, completely without dialogue, after a fever epidemic, when Albert and Hubert both venture outside in female clothing for the first time in decades, speaks volumes. Both actors do all the work with their posture and movements, one painfully poignant conversation executed entirely through facial expressions. Glenn Close can say more with locking a door and laying down on a bed than less competent actors can do with a whole movie full of dialogue.

The last act of this story fits with the tone of what's gone before, reminding viewers of difficult choices made in extenuating circumstances. One gets the sense that Albert hasn't quite been inhabiting the same world as those around him, and that the masculine appearance is only part of his story. We know only the facts of how Albert became Albert, but Albert keeps everything else close to the vest. His final reaction to an altercation between Helen and Joe says everything he has to say, again, without a word. His final reveal, as well, to one hotel employee, fits with everything else, entirely appropriate to the person Albert was. It may not be the happiest of endings, but it's the right one for this story.

What are you watching this weekend?

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