Man, Glenn's Good! The utterly convincing portrayal of a decent, dutiful butler who is secretly a woman
Albert Nobbs earned Oscar nominations for both its leading actresses, so I feared that — along with other ‘Oscar bait’ — it might be dull and worthy. I was pleasantly surprised.
This costume drama set in 19th-century Dublin is no stilted period piece. It’s a timely study of such old-fashioned virtues as duty, diffidence and decency.
These are the kind of qualities routinely derided as lower middle-class, but the more fair-minded among you may notice that nowadays they are in regrettably short supply. Ambition and self-expression are much more in fashion.
Another strike against Albert Nobbs as a box-office prospect is that it is as far from the world of fantasy superheroes as can be imagined.
Nobbs himself is a sad, silent man, employed as a waiter and butler in a Dublin hotel. Lined and middle-aged, he seems born to serve the boorish businessmen and arrogant aristocrats who make up the hotel’s clientele.
Nobbs blends into the background and cultivates a useful invisibility.
But then he becomes smitten by the most beautiful of the hotel’s maids (Mia Wasikowska) and begins lavishing gifts on her, not knowing she is already in a sexual relationship with the hotel’s illiterate young handyman (Aaron Johnson).
The two youngsters want to escape to America, so they decide to relieve Albert of his savings.
So far, so simple, you might think. The story might be a serviceable subplot in series three of Downton Abbey. But there’s a complicating factor.
Albert Nobbs is a woman. She is played by Glenn Close with a stifled terror that she may, at any moment, be discovered. There are no female butlers, so she lives in daily apprehension of being exposed and fired.
She is more frightened than ever when the hotel’s proprietor (Pauline Collins) insists Albert share his bed overnight with a painter, Hubert Page. But it’s no spoiler to reveal Hubert is himself a woman, played with flamboyant machismo by the great Janet McTeer.
Hubert has a small business and even a wife (beautifully and defiantly played by Bronagh Gallagher). How on Earth did Hubert manage this? Albert is intrigued and, to a certain extent, empowered.
That’s enough of the plot, which takes off in unexpected directions and comes to a satisfyingly offbeat conclusion.
Close won an Obie for playing Albert off-Broadway 30 years ago, and brings a sympathetic naivety to the role. She’s bewildered by such commonplaces as forming friendships or falling in love. And yet she has an instinctively good nature. ‘A life without decency is unbearable,’ Albert says.
The reason the character has universal appeal is that, like so many, she has devoted her life to thinking of others’ needs, never her own.
Close and McTeer have rightly attracted rave reviews, but there’s just as wonderful work from Wasikowska, who first graced the screen in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, and has gone on to establish herself as a fine actress.
The film could have become a lesbian-separatist tract, but it avoids that trap. Really, it’s about the need for love and companionship. It also has interesting insights into transgender living, and examines how much nurture as opposed to nature dictates sexual identity.
The centrepiece is a scene when McTeer and Close go to the beach dressed up as conventional Victorian women. Though it’s pretty much irrelevant to the plot, it’s a marvellously uncomfortable image of liberation and imprisonment, both at the same time.
Albert Nobbs is based on a story by George Moore (1852-1933), an Irish author who may well have based it on real people he knew.
The film that Albert Nobbs most reminded me of was The Remains Of The Day, another movie in which an ageing retainer (played, in that case, by Anthony Hopkins) found his job left no time for love and was dismayed to discover how much of life he’d wasted on deference to his social ‘superiors’.
As with that film, it’s hard to watch Albert being exploited and humiliated. It’s painful to accept his inability to conquer his limitations, his embarrassing attempts at romance, and his chilling need to remain employed.
But it’s highly realistic about the way many people lead their lives, and always have done. Few have the relatively modern luxury of ‘finding themselves’. Most have to accept compromise. And hardly any lives have happy endings.
Director Rodrigo Garcia (son of the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez) is a thoughtful film-maker, especially adept at drawing great performances out of women. He has made a grown-up movie, full of detail and texture, and with tenderness for its flawed and damaged characters.
It’s unlikely to be a commercial hit in an age when the masses prefer violence, explosions and loads of action, not to mention plots that end up precisely where you knew they would.
But if, like me, you’re aware that much of the finest, non-formulaic writing and direction these days is for the small screen, in series such as Homeland, The Killing and The Bridge, Albert Nobbs will come as a breath of fresh air.
I don’t imagine it will be on for long, or in many cinemas, so do see it if you can.