Glenn Close goes masculine in new film examining gender roles
by Kit van Cleave
Ireland is a small place filled with many small sad stories of oppression, religious control, ignorance, poverty. Still, the Irish write poignantly of their blessings on the green isle. A new film, Albert Nobbs, from a short story by George Moore (“The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs”), is only one such tale.
During Ireland’s last 700 years, one of the most complex and civilized cultures on the planet was persistently attacked and destroyed by the British, who were in a colonizing phase of empire building. Most of the population was involved in fishing, farming, or tending sheep. The two largest cities are Dublin and Cork (Belfast, in the north, is in another country). In Albert Nobbs’s day, at the end of the l9th century, jobs were few and far between; many citizens were employed in their family’s small business. Women were to marry, tend house and farm, and raise the children.
For a woman alone, with no relatives, life could be desperately harsh. The young woman who became Albert Nobbs found jobs but was rejected because she was a woman. Finally, she chose to wear male attire and pass for a man so she could become a waiter in a hotel. She had a room there and was even able to put a little money aside—hopefully to open a tobacco shop.
Albert passed successfully; few noticed him at all. He was shy and silent and kept all his feelings inside—along with his secret. One day, hotel owner Mrs. Baker hired Hubert Page to paint the interior; he is to share Albert’s room while employed on the job. He quickly sees through Albert’s disguise, and should, as he, too, is a woman in men’s clothing.
Clearly, this is an Irish story, but is it a gay one? Hubert is escaping abuse (gang-raped, an abusive husband) by presenting herself as a man, but is also married to a woman. Once she becomes comfortable as male, Hubert enjoys new freedoms in the life she builds. Albert, on the other hand, is simply living out each day, terrified that someone will pierce his mystery and get him fired and possibly imprisoned.
This quiet, simple story makes a fine film. Glenn Close, an Oscar nominee this year for Best Actress, is supported by many top Irish and English actors; Janet McTeer, as Hubert, also gained an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Pauline Collins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, and Maria Doyle Kennedy do subtle work. Mia Wasikowska is at her usual standard of terrific as a flirtatious hotel maid Helen Dawes, whom Albert hopes will marry him and work in his shop.
This may well be Close’s most sensitive and iconic role. Known for playing independent, controlling women (Fatal Attraction, Damages), as Albert she shows the pain caused by her society’s rigid gender roles. While she may not win this year’s Oscar for Best Actress, her performance in this film, and as co-writer of the script with John Banville, demonstrates the further flowering of a major artist. Together, Close and McTeer polish this gem of a film into a diamond.
Albert Nobbs is now playing at Sundance Houston (510 Texas, 713/223-3456) at 2:00, 4:30, 7:25, and 10:00 p.m.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Houston’s Montrose area. She has published in local, national, and international media.