The premise of “Albert Nobbs” (2011) tells a touching tale of a woman, who has disguised herself as a man Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) for the last thirty years. Albert works as a hotel waiter in Dublin, Ireland and the film’s story is set in the 19th century. Albert is saving money so that he can buy a shop. Meanwhile, Albert’s secret is revealed after a painter named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) visits the hotel for minor paint work. Page tells Albert that his secret will not be disclosed to anyone and, during his visit, Page also shares his secret with Albert. In the same hotel where Albert works, a maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) falls for a young man, Joe Mackins (Aaron Johnson). Things get complicated when Albert thinks that Helen would be the ideal wife to run a shop with and starts courting her.
“Albert Nobbs” mainly highlights the struggles of the working-class people of Ireland. While we see many characters, the film devotes the majority of time to covering the lives of Albert, Page, and Helen. Through these characters, we learn of the gender divide that existed in the 19th century Ireland. During that time, it was difficult for women to earn decent wages as women were prohibited from certain types of jobs. In fact, as we see Albert’s life unfold before our eyes, one thing is pretty clear: the film’s story is not a character study, but, rather, a journey for the characters set in a specific time period. Sure, there are elements that define each character, but, the characters are already well-defined by background events, only described as part of conversations. For instance, Albert’s identity is set in stone, and he wants to be remembered as a hard-working man.
Apart from altering himself as a man, Albert never comes across as a complicated character. He has made a compromise to suppress his real gender for the outside world, and in the process sacrificing the prospect of leading a domestic life with a partner. After living as a man for almost thirty years, Albert has completely forgotten his actual sex. In a remarkable scene with Page, Albert wears a nice woman dress, probably for the first time in thirty years, and he radiates with happiness, embracing the freedom and vulnerability that comes as a result of this event. At this point, Albert realizes that his life has been empty and he starts to desire for a companion in his life. Page shows him the way by telling Albert that love is the only reason for a companionship to exist between two people. Albert has been a loner all his life and finds this aspect hard to understand. He feels Helen would make a right partner, but fails to ignite a spark in her in a loving, romantic way. Surely, Albert’s friendship with Page is the central attraction in the story, as it opens the door for introspection in the lives of the characters.
In the performance department, we see two top-notch performances. The first performance, of course, comes from Glenn Close and the second performance is from Janet McTeer. Close and McTeer were respectively nominated in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories at the 84th Academy Awards. Using modern make-up techniques, Close is brilliantly molded as the male character of Albert Nobbs. She truthfully portrays Albert as an introverted person, who does not mingle much with people. There is always a tense look on Albert’s face because he fears that someone would know his true sexual identity and this expression is significant in developing Albert’s world. Close believably characterizes the duality of Albert’s character, and her gentle mannerism shows Albert as a sensitive, caring man. She strikes the right balance in playing as a male character, and her performance is unambiguous, which otherwise would have been challenging to portray for an actor playing an opposite gender. McTeer is equally impressive in playing as a tough-talking, unwavering Helen. She delights the audience with her honest straight-from-the-heart comments that are at times light-hearted, too. With a manly makeover, McTeer is exceedingly realistic in her performance and it is hard to believe that her male character in the film is played by a female actor.
Despite exemplary performances from Close and McTeer, from a storytelling perspective, the film’s plot is underdeveloped. The story focuses on showing the plight of the working-class, especially the discrimination against women at workplaces. But, the gender divide in the working class is never broadened and we really never see impoverished workers struggling to make their ends meet. From the film, it seems that the role of a man and a woman in a working society is automatically set, each accepting their roles. Yet, we don’t see how employers treated women at work in the 19th century. We assume the conditions were worse for women workers, otherwise there would be no man-wannabe characters like Albert Nobbs. Certainly, Albert’s character is noteworthy when we know who he really is, but the script meanders for too long to develop anything around him. The subplot involving Helen and Joe is predictable, and apart from injecting edginess to Joe’s character by showing their domestic troubles, these side plots feel forced.
Lionsgate presents “Albert Nobbs” in an aspect ratio of 2.34:1, encoded using an AVC codec. The 1080p transfer looks stunning in representing the period piece set in the 19th century. The detail is remarkable in both the short and long shots, and the image stays sharp throughout. Even though there are several indoor and outdoor scenes, the film is mainly shot in well-lit conditions. The transfer looks clean with well-balanced contrast and solid blacks. The close-ups are tight, revealing fine facial details. The film’s palette is devoid of bright colors; the colors are deliberately toned down and we mainly see the blacks and greys in the palette.
We get a lossless audio track in the form of a 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio track. The movie is a dialogue-driven affair, and this track perfectly captures the serene nature of the drama. As expected, the dialogue is crisp and clear. During quite moments, the movie’s soundtrack would trigger rear channels. However, these moments are rare and the aural experience is mostly satisfied using the front channels. In addition, the movie can be watched with English subtitles.
First, we get an audio commentary track with actor Glenn Close and director Rodrigo Garcia. The duo mainly talks about the scenes and how they were constructed with different things in mind. They discuss the script and story, but we never get background information on the project itself. Next, we get a set of three deleted scenes, followed by a theatrical trailer in HD.
“Albert Nobbs” features brilliant performances from Glenn Close and Janet McTeer and the film needs to be watched only for this reason. The story lacks depth and the character development is spotty, too. The film’s central theme deals with the loneliness and companionship and it remains mostly a touching tale, but never an emotionally satisfying one. Fans of Glenn Close may want to check this film.