Basic Plot: Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is a highly withdrawn woman disguised as a man to get work as a live-in waiter in 19th century England. However, a guest named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) arrives in the night and not only discovers Albert's secret but reveals that she too is a woman in disguise. Albert bonds with Page and starts formulating a plan to start a tobacco shop with all the money she has saved, which includes trying to romance another maid to appear more legitimate.
Watching a movie is more than seeing images pass by on a screen. It's all about the experience, and what experience the movie is gearing towards becomes more relevant with each passing year. Now that many movies are in IMAX or 3D, and that graphics are constantly hitting new heights, it seems these days that people, or at least producers, see movies more as rides than stories. This is both good and bad. Great movies do bring you into another world, which is a ride in itself, so there's no reason to condemn movies that take you on a journey. However, downright crummy movies often get excused for horrible dialogue and acting because of the pure visceral aspect of the 3D or graphics. And such movies are starting to become the norm. It's just the times we live in I guess, but unless producers give more attention to films to don't necessarily feel like roller coasters, movie quality as a whole will get worse. Because the moment we think with our eyes and not with our brains is when we truly become blind.
The reason for this set up is to show that, for better or worse, most movies try to take you on some form of ride, whether through special effects (Speedracer), emotional buildup (Warrior), or pure fantasy (Alice in Wonderland). Yet Albert Nobbs is a stark exception to this rule because it is in no way a ride or journey. It's a study of a person.
The character Albert Nobbs has only one thing on her mind: saving money to start a tobacco shop. Because of a traumatic event you find out later in the film, she is quiet to the point of muteness, and so unaware that she seems almost inhuman. She has absolutely no understanding of social norms, entertainment, or romance. She is also asexual, primarily due to the event I noted earlier that I won't spoil. She seems constantly out of place unless she's working, and even then she's so cold and emotionless she doesn't look real. The one thing she understands is work, which is why she regards everything around her with a flat, business attitude. When she considers courting a young maid (Mia Wasikowska) she sees it as a partnership rather than a real relationship, utterly devoid of any passion. Words like love, passion, even fun, are concepts that do not appear to register in Albert's mind.
And this is precisely what makes her so fascinating. It's like watching a newly discovered species under a microscope. Throughout the entire movie you are constantly trying to piece her personality together. Every scene with her, every line of dialogue she utters, work as building blocks to her character. Every time you think you have her completely figured out, another scene will make your observations go deeper. The movie does a fine job of being intimate about a character that is anything but. People will be turned off by the movie since Albert is so strange and lacking in many human characteristics, as well as the fact she looks a bit alien as well with the makeup and prosthetics on Glenn Close, but this all works well if you see Albert as a specimen and not as someone to identify with.
Naturally, a movie focusing solely on a reserved character could be a bit dry, which is why we have Hubert Page, another woman in disguise played by Janet McTeer. As Albert and the audience get to know her better, Page is quite a contrast. She is confident, social, and quite affable. Not only does she help Albert break out her shell, but she instills much needed optimism in a movie that is essentially a tragedy. Yet she does it all without being peppy or unrealistic. She's pretty manly, in her speech and mannerisms, and has a very honest cadence in her voice. It's like listening to a wise man hearing her speak, yet it's actually a woman with a thick Irish brogue. Seeing these two characters discuss their issues and lives together is the real gem of this movie. I wish every scene with them had gone on longer. But that's nothing compared to the remarkable couple that is Hubert and her wife Cathleen, played by Bronagh Gallagher. I haven't seen too many lesbian couples in film but I doubt I'll see one I enjoy watching more than this one. Cathleen and Hubert are so loving and playful that you can't resist the fat smile crackling across your face. I've always thought that for a couple to be believable, it's the little things that count. Simply staring at each other with dull-eyed expressions or saying "I love you" continuously is hokey and lazy. It's the small gestures: the hand finding itself on a shoulder, a smirk of disapproval from a lover pretending to be jealous. Hubert and Cathleen have wonderfully natural chemistry, and it's so pleasing to watch that I cannot even explain it. You have to see it for yourself.
But now we come to the biggest problem with the film: the best parts are also the scarcest. We only get one scene with Cathleen and Hubert, and every scene with Hubert and Albert should have been extended because they are the meat and meaning to the story. This movie is about female identity, as well as personal tragedy. It would make more sense to focus on the cross-dressing females since the movie is about...well....cross dressing females.
Yet there is subplot concerning the maid that Albert tries to court, Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) and her lover Joe (Aaron Johnson) that takes up way too much screen time. I understand that Helen's dream of moving to America with Joe is a parallel to Albert's dream of opening a shop. The problem is that all the Helen and Joe parts just aren't interesting. The acting is a bit shoddy in parts, and Joe is a scoundrel but in a very predictable, Lifetime Channel sort of way. If these sections were reduced a bit to give more oomph to the Albert/Hubert/Cathleen bits, the movie could have been a masterpiece. When you're writing a screenplay, you should acknowledge which parts are truly engaging, which are there simply to further the plot, and then slice and dice accordingly.
Another problem is that most viewers will find this on Netflix, watch the first ten minutes, and turn it off. This is because the film opens with a dull dinner scene wherein Albert is working. The dialogue is so "Chip chip cheerio!" that it plays out like a spoof of British dramas rather than a genuine one. A character even says "Tip Top!" for god's sake.
The ending will throw off some people too because it's a bit rushed and anticlimactic, but it is what would happen if these events actually took place. I got enough closure from the tiny-shimmer-of-hope ending to be satisfied, but there will be others that will groan undernourished when the screen goes to black.
The performances of Close, McTeer, and Gallagher make this movie overrcome its weaknesses, it's just a shame we didn't get to see a bit more of them. All in all, your enjoyment of this film will depend greatly on whether you take pleasure in picking apart characters, or if you require more drama and romance, more of a ride as mentioned above, in your viewing experience. This is NOT a date movie or a movie to see with the guys. But it is an interesting little piece of art to discuss at dinner with friends or family.
Best Way to Watch: Just before dinner or shortly after for discussion time.