How important is the lesbian vibe to “Albert Nobbs?” It isn’t. Sure, it might seem like an edgy gender bending/blending yarn, but at its core, it’s about choices and consequences. This theme is packaged in a movie is about a woman who chooses to live her life as a man for a reason that I dare not reveal. It matters not that she might also have romantic feelings for one of her own gender.
The riddle of the very odd man known to his co-workers as Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is that he is really a she. Of course, no one knows this and Albert goes to extraordinary lengths to conceal her secret. She warps her breasts, dresses in male clothing, and when she speaks it is in low tones so as not to draw attention. And of course, she adopts the name “Albert,” so as to sell the entire ruse. Her job is that of a humble servant, a waiter in a hotel in 19th century Dublin, Ireland. She also lives on site, available round the clock to the eccentric guests that frequent the establishment. One day, a tall man named Hubert (Janet McTeer) comes to the hotel to paint one of the rooms. Needing to spend the night, she is assigned to Albert’s room, where the two “men” will cohabitate for the evening. What happens next sets in motion changes in the way Albert sees herself and how he will move forward.
I get choked up just writing about this movie. Yes, “Albert Nobbs” is a bit of a labor, but the central theme has such gnawing weight that for me it overcomes the movie’s lumpiness. Reflecting on the film, I’m moved to think about how all of us make decisions in our lives early on that can linger forever. Nobb’s decision was to abandon her gender. Not only did that youthful choice make sense at the time, but it paid off—she landed a job as a waiter and over time managed to squirrel away a small fortune. But the choice that was the product of youth and inexperience had lifelong consequences.
Choices, we all have them, but can we live with them? And if you’re young enough can you overcome the repercussions? Let’s face it growing up is hard. One false step and you’re on a conveyor to nowhere. For example, at age 21, having graduated from college with a liberal arts degree, I decided mainly out of fear to go to law school. I had been selling what we referred to then as “cellular phones” back then. You know, the large, dumb brick-like devices, some, like the one I carried, came in a bag and occupied the passenger seat of my small compact car. Going to law school for three years turned out to be a very lucky break, I think, but the growth industry of the wireless phone business may have paid off too. Regardless, my heart was elsewhere, and it still is.
So many of us are not so lucky and some decisions become crippling errors. On my day job, I frequently represent young people who have no structure to their lives having lost their way so badly that it might take decades to find a place again in our society. Often, I see the first wrong decision and many times I see the last—an entire life’s history can be surveyed on one jail calendar.
But more about the film: “Albert Nobbs” is a long festering passion project for Glenn Close, who not only stars, but has a writing credit, and I read she wrote one the songs for the film. Although she may be a little old for the role, which she originally performed off-Broadway in the early 1980s, no one else could have or should have been considered for the title character. It helps that she is surrounded by such excellent supporting players. Janet McTeer, who was justly nominated for her fine work here, is a towering presence and acts as the voice of reason that really makes the movie’s slowest moments work.
Albert’s epiphany in “Nobbs” is gut wrenching, at first. She seems to regret her decision to live her life as a man, but then some kind of maturation takes place. Much credit goes to Close, who subtly transforms just enough to give us a glimpse at what could have been and what might be. Albert comes of age late. Her story might be the product of the repressive time and place, but the awakening is timeless. Compare the contemporary “Pariah” that came out last year. That film certainly explores the sexual component more fully, but both movies deal with choices made in youth. Like “Pariah,” “Nobbs” ends on a hopeful note. Not all choices that start off bad have to end that way. And when mistakes are made some of us are lucky enough to have a lifetime to undo them.