By Joan Ellis
Albert Nobbs is a curiously uncomfortable experience precisely because it is beautifully acted by all hands. Director Rodrigo Garcia deposits us directly in the culture and class system of 19th century Ireland and then shows us in agonizing detail how the upper class is served by the lower in Edwardian Dublin. The servants who work in Morrison’s Hotel are invisible until one or another makes a mistake in the placement of a cup or a napkin. When drunken guests trip noisily over themselves on the way to their rooms they don’t notice the servants in the hall. They simply don’t exist.
One of these is Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close), a hotel waiter at Morrison’s – a woman who has assumed the identity of a man. Albert is shy and deferential, precise, and good at his job. He dares to dream of opening a tobacco shop and toward that day he saves his salary under the floorboards of his small room. When Marge Baker (Pauline Collins), the officious hotel manager, hires Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) to repaint the building, she orders Albert to share his room with Hubert. The conversation between them leads Albert to think he might look for a wife who could also be a partner in his tobacco shop. His eye falls on Helen (Mia Wasikowska), an effervescent fellow employee who responds to the shy Albert with compassion. The character, as drawn, seems unlikely.
In the culture of that day, could a terribly shy hotel waiter ever achieve his dream of having both a wife and his own business? Isn’t he doomed forever to a life of obedience to Mrs. Baker’s orders or to failure if he leaves?
Glenn Close played this role on the stage many years ago and has now realized a long held dream of bringing it to the screen. She is thoroughly consistent as Albert, not an easy job. She shows us his reliability as a proper waiter; and when he is outside the dining room, she shows us his nearly crippling awkwardness. The scenes between Albert and Hubert as played by Close and Janet McTeer bring forth the only expressions of feeling that Albert allows himself. He has been offered a tiny sliver of hope for his future. McTeer is exceptional as the well-adjusted Hubert. In contrast, Close must be so confined, so rigid as Albert that it’s hard to warm to the character or to join in the hope. Without hope, we share his despair.
Although the servants work and live in the beautiful surroundings of Morrison’s, no part of it will ever be theirs to enjoy. There is something quite different in life presented here from the Upstairs/Downstairs cultures we have all enjoyed on Public Television. That seemed a world of fully realized double cultures with all comers both entitled and vulnerable to the vagaries of the luxurious life that surrounds them. They had lives. Hubert has a life. Albert doesn’t. Alas.