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film review: albert nobbs

Albert Nobbs was a labour of love for Glenn Close. The Oscar-nominated actress performed the role in the stage production of George Moore’s short story in the eighties, and was so taken by the character that she would co-write the screenplay and produce the film. It underwent a series of transformations over time, which is why in 2012 we are now finally getting to see the finished product.

Set during the 19th Century in Ireland, the first thing to strike viewers is the vast divide between the classes. On the one hand there are the prim and proper rich people who can afford to stay at the austere hotel where Nobbs works as the headwaiter. The majority of people however are poor, or working poor like the maids and other domestic staff with plenty of people unemployed (especially men).

Nobbs appears to be a sweet but strange little man played by the exceptional and highly convincing Close. Born an orphan and eventually encountering a tragic episode of sexual violence, she decided to thereafter act as a man. He remains in this guise like a timid and unobtrusive church mouse and while appearing happy, he is ultimately trapped by this very scheme.

Things change when Nobbs meets painter, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a fellow worker with a secret who is the catalyst in making Nobbs realise that he wants something more from this life. McTeer does a stellar job and steals the scenes with fine wit and general affability. While this film deals with the theme of lost opportunities it seems like a great shame that we don’t follow Hubert’s story in greater depth, as the character is certainly an easier one to warm up to, especially when compared with the low-key and reserved star.

This subdued tale also includes a romantic subplot where Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a foolhardy maid, falls for the drunken boiler repairer, Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson). This occurs while Nobbs is trying to court the former thinking she’ll work in the tobacco shop he has dreamed of opening. Of course, he’s blissfully unaware of the fact that the pair are just conning the sad, little man out of his fortune.

Albert Nobbs has the ingredients to be one great film. Although a tense yet odd period drama, it tackles the idea of gender conflicts and identity crises head-on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always deliver on this promise because it can feel rather awkward and even unfinished at points. A slow-burning affair where the mounting suspense proves rather anti-climactic, it is unquestionably one humble film. At its worst, it is difficult to watch and dry thanks to its modesty, and at best it is heartfelt, atmospheric and rather charming. Like its central character, Albert Nobbs is destined to throw up more questions than answers because when you scratch away at the grace, conflict and melancholy you realise how short it falls of its full potential, making it one crying shame (or is that game?).

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