García, Rodrigo (Director). (2012). Albert Nobbs. Santa Monica, CA: Lionsgate.
This poignant film tells the story of a woman in 19th-century Ireland who takes on the persona of a man in order to survive. Born an illegitimate child fostered by a woman who never told her who she was, Albert Nobbs never even knew her given name, if she had one. When the movie opens, she has been passing as a man for some 30 years, working as a waiter in an upscale hotel.
As a servant, Nobbs is invisible, taking care of patrons’ needs and blending into the background. Her fear of being fired and impoverished have her saving money and dreaming of opening her own shop, all the while hiding herself and playing the role of a perfect—and servile—worker.
Mild spoilers below!
When Nobbs meets a confidant and handsome man hired to paint the hotel, a series of humorous events play out that result in her being outed as a woman to this man, Hubert Page. Initially terrified, Nobbs is soon taken aback as Hubert reveals that he, too, is a woman. Not only has he been living as a man for years, he is even happily married to a lovely woman.
Emboldened by her new friend’s marriage and financial security, Nobbs decides she wants to find a partner too—someone to spend her life with and start an independent business with. She starts courting Helen, a maid working in the hotel. Without revealing too much plot, I’ll just say that Nobbs is tremendously lonely, but it’s unclear if she is a lesbian, straight, or asexual. I suspect that she herself doesn’t know. She has never had the opportunity to explore her sexuality, and homosexuality was not a topic for discussion in those days, so she didn’t have community to look to and learn from.
The entire movie is full of these ambiguities around identity. In a time before labels, how do we know if Nobbs is gay or straight? How do we know if Hubert is transgender or a lesbian? Do they even know? As a 21st-century viewer, I would guess that Nobbs identifies as a woman and is cross-dressing purely to survive. There is one scene where she has the opportunity to wear a dress and she clearly loves it. Hubert, on the other hand, does not appear to be cross-dressing. I suspect that he is transgender, based on his comfort and fluency with male dress, speech, gesture, and so forth. But, again, it’s hard to know for sure—and I’m unsure if it really matters to the characters.
I found the movie beautiful and heartbreaking, full of well-developed characters and themes of struggle and love. Although tragic, there are also moments of humor, rich friendship, and hope. The cast was extraordinary, a truly cohesive team with wonderful chemistry together. In particular, Glenn Close, who plays Albert Nobbs, and Janet McTeer, who plays Hubert Page, are fantastic together. McTeer has such an incredible swagger, I was quite surprised to discover that she is not a butch lesbian in real life.
Albert Nobbs was directed by Rodrigo García (son of Gabriel García Marquez), a fantastic director with a reputation for sensitive portrayals of women. The screenplay is based on a short story written by Irish author George Moore, adapted by Glenn Close, John Banville, and Gabriella Prekop. Glenn Close has been engaging with the story for 30 years, since she played Nobbs in an off-Broadway theatrical production in 1982. This film is thanks to her love for the character and insistence that the story be told on the big screen.
More information at the official movie website: http://albertnobbs-themovie.com/