Rodrigo García’s Albert Nobbs (2011), adapted from George Moore’s short story by Glenn Close and John Banville, is a beautifully acted film (particularly by Glenn Close and especially by Janet McTeer), but it ultimately fails because it’s essentially the story of an androgynous robot. While I admit that I’m being somewhat facetious, the main problem with Albert Nobbs is Albert Nobbs (Close), a butler in a nineteenth-century Dublin hotel. Yet, as one especially keen fellow viewer noted, Albert “doesn’t look like a man.” Well, that’s because Albert was born a woman, lost her mother, and experienced a horrible ordeal that caused him to become guarded to the point of completely embracing the faux persona of a man in order to successfully function.
Just to clarify my use of the term “faux persona”—which should not be viewed as a slight against the LGBT community – the film doesn’t define Albert as being transgendered or as being affected by a gender identity disorder. Albert becomes Albert out of a very tangible act of self-preservation—to survive after a group of men victimizes her. Yet, the flaw in the film is that all of this is handled abstractly. We barely get a glimpse beyond Albert’s awkward role play and, regardless of the circumstances that caused the construction of aforementioned faux persona, it’s difficult to empathize with someone who is very guarded and always seems to be putting on an act…especially when that person is incredibly dense.
One day, a house painter by the name of Hubert Paige (Janet McTeer) discovers Albert’s secret. Albert learns that Paige is also a woman masquerading as a man and has a wife and successful business at that. When Albert gets wind of Paige’s wondrous home life, he decides to—without any rational reason whatsoever—use his life savings to purchase a storefront for a tobacco shop (despite the fact that he doesn’t smoke, let alone know how to roll a cigarette) and romantically pursue a woman to help him run it. Enter Albert’s co-worker, the flirtatious maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), who for some unexplained reason, becomes the apple of Albert’s eye.
The plot thickens when we discover that Helen is only “walking out” with Albert so she can bring his gifts of chocolate and whiskey back to her true love, Joe (Aaron Johnson). Helen doesn’t hide this from Albert; she acknowledges that she’s already dating Joe and refuses Albert’s chaste advances several times. Yet, Albert continues to try and woo her anyways. But why is Albert taken with Helen in the first place? Why does he continue to pursue her when there is no chemistry—let alone any hope of chemistry—between them (Albert is continually defined as being asexual and shows no romantic interest in men or women; he merely longs for simple companionship)? And why the tobacco shop?
Now, I think the answer to these questions might be something like this: “Well, Albert Nobbs has been forced to put on an act and basically has no idea how to function as a true individual in this society. He does what he does because these actions are presumed by the society around him. That’s his tragedy. He cannot be himself or, if he chooses, herself.” OK, fine…but it isn’t particularly effective to make someone who is a moronic cipher the protagonist of your movie, especially when you want to engage our empathy towards a valid social issue.
If García (or Moore before him) wanted us to really grapple with the tragedy of Albert Nobbs, he should have given us his story through the eyes of Hubert Paige, a character we understand because he expresses valid emotions with which we can empathize (and he’s funny and smart!). Plus, it would have given us more of Janet McTeer, who is incredible here as the humanized version of someone in the same situation as Albert. This slight restructuring could let us have it both ways by exploring Albert’s sad plight while allowing us to latch on to some human contrast. At the end, we can only acknowledge Albert’s sadness as Albert does: without emotion.