Director Rodrigo Garcia’s late 19th century period piece ‘Albert Nobbs’ (2011) starring Glenn Close in the title role, will undoubtedly be reviewed as another in a long line of gender bending stories that question the relevance of gender. Indeed it is all that but also much more. With subtle dexterity, the screenplay, a collaboration between Glenn Close and John Banville, is simply telling a love story – the irrelevance of gender is clear, not for the usual reasons but because the film is everything but romantic. ‘Albert Nobbs’ rather speaks to what can be called an ‘active love’ – the concept being that it is personal sacrifice in actions for another, unconditionally given.
Eschewing the usual gut wrenching reflection or self-consciousness is what makes this film so rich and compelling as a love story. Albert has been disguising her self as a man, indeed becoming a man, since the age of 14 in an almost incredulous act of self-defense and survival. Now middle aged she/he confronts her/his long repressed need to be a loving and loved woman/man. By a set of mundane circumstances Albert’s long kept secret is exposed to the handsome Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) and the resulting friendship and love between the two is both startling and rewarding for the viewer.
The script in Director Rodrigo Garcia’s capable hands never strays for the sensational and remains true to its period and late 19th century Dublin. Surprising given the subject matter, it must have been tempting to engage a modern sensibility. Instead, Garcia lets the story deliberately wash over the viewer in keeping with its time, using textured and layered depictions of its characters — most notably Mia Wasikowska playing Helen, the subject of Albert’s innocent affections and Brendan Gleeson as the reprobate House Doctor. Remarkably it is only the women in this story that redeem it – ably filling both the traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles of love. And just as remarkable is the abject failure of the men in this story to get beyond their own needs.
Early talk is that Glenn Close will seriously be considered for an Academy Award nomination for her depiction of Albert Nobbs, as she should be. But a much more likely choice will be Janet McTeer as the lanky and handsome Hubert Page getting a nod as Best Supporting Actor.