A Close Encounter
A GHOST-LIKE character shuffles slowly, almost anonymously, into a sparsely furnished room on the top floor of Dublin’s Cabinteely House.
The figure is of slight build, with a close crop of gingery hair, twinkling eyes peering from a wizened, owlish face. He is known as Albert Nobbs.
"Hello," says Albert’s small voice as the figure extends its hand. "I’m Glenn Close."
To call Close’s transformation astounding is an understatement on par with describing Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a decent yarn. The Glenn Close we know from her big screen performances in Dangerous Liaisons and Fatal Attraction and her Emmy Award-winning role in the TV series Damages, is hidden away beneath a small, androgynous form, tiny in size though enormous in intensity.
Albert Nobbs is the titular character in Close’s latest, and by far most personal, film. He lives in 19th century Dublin, and he is, in fact, a woman, working as a butler in Morrison’s Hotel, while harbouring dreams of one day starting a business of his, or her, own.
"I think that Albert Nobbs is one of the truly great characters," begins the now 65-year-old Close, as she settles her sparrow-like form into a rickety chair. The actress earned an Oscar nomination on the back of the film’s release in the US last year.
"There’s something very deeply affecting about the life that Albert’s lived," she adds. "I felt like that from the very start with this character."
Her connection to the character stretches back to her early years as a performer, when in 1982 she starred in Simone Benmussa’s theatrical interpretation of the short story, The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, by the Co Mayo-born author George Moore.
She earned rave reviews and scooped an Obie Award for her troubles. "When we did it on stage, the audience just loved it and were gob-smacked at the end," Close recalls.
"There’s an American football term, ‘blindsided’, where you get hit from a direction you’re not expecting and that’s what this story does; it blindsides people.
"I became very busy in my career but the story was always something that I believed would make a wonderful movie, and it was something that I dreamed about over the years."
Now, 30 years later, Close’s dream has become a reality, and George Moore’s story is alive once more, the film adaptation earning an Oscar win for Best Make-Up as well as nomination in the Best Film category at the Irish Film & Television Awards.
Close began work on the production more than a decade ago, scouting locations across Ireland, and constantly working on a script, which was honed towards its final format with the input of the film’s director, Rodrigo Garcia.
Garcia is the son of iconic Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez and directed Close on 1999’s Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and on 2005’s Nine Lives. "The themes are very contemporary although the story is very much of its time, late 19th century, and is very much about the inner life of a person and her problems with identity," says Garcia.
"Today in a lot of scripts characters talk about their problems. Instead of the audience being told a story, you hear characters bitching. This was the opposite. Five pages from the end I still didn’t know what would happen."
John Banville also collaborated with Close on a late draft. "He was suggested to me by my friend Stephen Frears," says Close, "and John did a re-write and a touch-up and brush-up, and then I basically took the script back. It became mine but he has been a fantastic collaborator."
The story follows the life of Close’s strange, elfin figure, the camera catching her at toil and repose, even though she’s largely invisible to those with whom she works and to whom she serves. Most believe Albert to be a quiet and unassuming man, deeply embedded in the world of service.
As the film progresses, the audience can see that Albert has been playing the part of a man for so long that she has lost her true self.
"The character’s an illegitimate child, raised by a woman who was paid to raise her and who never revealed her real name," says Close of her character. "She starts off with a lack of identity and she’s lived in a hotel all of her life.
"And she doesn’t want to end up in the poorhouse. At this time, Ireland was extremely poor and around the corner from the hotel is abject poverty and she knows that without this job, that’s where she could end up. And she knows people could get fired any day. There is a sense of fear among them all."
For all the quietude on set at Cabinteely House, the film is brimming with lively characters that bring all sorts of hopes, dreams, humour and turmoil to Albert’s tale. A powerful supporting cast includes Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Janet McTeer and Brendan Gleeson, all of whom joined the production because they wanted to work with Close on her passion play.
"There’s a certain severity, I think, that people associate with Glenn and is true of the way she goes at the work," notes Gleeson when we chat in the dusty pantry in between takes, "given that she is so meticulous and driven to get the work to a high standard".
"But there is a wonderful lightness about her," he adds, "and about what she is trying to achieve. The story is all about heart, and it’s a great working environment, one of the best I’ve been on."
Gleeson says that though the piece is tinged with sadness and is far from showy — "Glenn’s not that way" — it is also light and amusing in places.
"You can knock quite a lot of laughs out of something that is supposed to be very poignant and sad and tragic, and everybody’s been having a laugh," adds the actor.
"I really wasn’t expecting it to be so amusing, and it’s great when that happens. It says a lot for Glenn’s confidence and her innate understanding that you don’t have to have a drear-fest to tell a tragedy.
"In fact the best way to tell tragedy is to find hilarity in it. When people have a twinkle in their eye the tragedy is doubled."
Thus far, the film has divided critics, and has taken a modest $5m (€3.8m) at the international box office to date, though few viewers contest the power of Close’s performance.
"The power of the story for me is like a simple glass of water," concludes the actress.
"Light reflects in a glass of water and it is actually a very complex thing. The story is quite simple but it touches on issues that are so powerful that everybody brings their own life and their own baggage to the story, and then takes away something, too.
"I hope the story is universally appealing and that other people agree."