I Can't See Through the Makeup
Oscar buzz means Albert Nobbs gets a closer look with its leading lady Glenn Close in the title role, and Janet McTeer getting herself nominated for a supporting actress award as well. And interesting enough, both play gender bender roles in a film set in the posh hotel in period Ireland, with an introduction that starkly laid out the social class divide of the time, and the norms and expectations that exist between the haves, and the have nots. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (whose last film was Mother and Child), Albert Nobbs boasts a stellar cast including the likes of Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson and even Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a very bit role of an aristocrat, and it is their fine performance all round that lifted the narrative that is steeped on the notion of secrets.
This film will definitely appeal to the niche LGBT crowd, given the subject matter where Albert Nobbs is Albert only to allow a woman, brutally violated in the past, to come out into society and earn an independent living all by herself. She cannot be who she is, and has to be someone whom she is not, but even then comes struggles of finding attractiveness in someone of the same gender, that of a fellow colleague cum chambermaid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) whose flirty nature finds the attention not of a rich man to whisk her off her feet and into a palace of riches, but by Aaron Johnson's Joe the handyman who knocks her up and complicates her employment status in the later act.
The narrative by Istvan Szabo's story is based upon George Moore's short story and adapted into a screenplay with Glenn Close's involvement, and is a story that's deeply weaved around the different relationships amongst the characters. There's the friendship forged between Albert and McTeer's painter character Hubert Page, who got engaged by the hotel for a job and had to put up together with Albert in his room, and for deeply buried secrets to be revealed, one which in a way inspires Albert to be less inhibited when inadvertently seeking out someone with whom he can possibly spend the rest of his life with given his inching toward his goal to become a shopkeeper.
Which brings us to the core love triangle of the story involving Albert's love for Helen, who in turn is in a relationship with the roguish Joe. This provides some form of a contrast between the usual heterosexual romance between Joe and Helen, and that of the same sex one between Albert and Helen, though I would have thought the latter came across more like a sisterly bond being created especially since beneath Helen's tough, happy go lucky exterior comes a certain vulnerability that can be exploited. Albert, being Albert for so long, assumes the very protective role of a guardian of sorts, and with Helen we see shades of inhibitions being stripped away as he discovers some inner happiness which had eluded him for some time.
Glenn Close may be getting a lot of accolades for her performance, and it's true she disappears into her role straddling between that of a woman and a man whom she spends a lot more time under the guise, complete with deep voice, but I thought this naturalness was somewhat a given since Close had been playing this role on stage years before. Mia Wasikowska continues in her hot streak playing diverse roles in her career so far, although I felt this one was probably the least challenging of the lot. But the one who stole the show was Janet McTeer's gruff portrayal of Hubert, stealing the show from under everyone's nose even with her limited screen time, and will probably put up quite the fight come awards season.
Besides fine acting, Albert Nobbs also has excellent production values that every self-respecting period film will focus on having in order to recreate and bring to life the littlest of details to transport any audience back to the late 19th century. You may have to suspend disbelief if you suppose the two ladies in men's disguise should have easily been found out, but like how the characters keep things under wraps, it's exploration of various relationships that is the film's kept under very poignant drama.