Despite being centred around a complex character portrayed with restraint and sympathy by Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs is nothing short of a wasted opportunity. Set in 19th century Ireland, it is about the titular Nobbs, who was born a woman but has been living as a man for many years. Nobbs has had no one to support him and protect him, but has managed to avoid the vulnerabilities faced by women of the time. He lives a small, private, and lonely life, earning a living as a butler in a modest hotel. When he meets Hubert (Janet McTeer), a woman who not only passes as a man but has found a wife, Nobbs gets larger ambitions.
Nobbs’ tale is one worth telling, a fascinating twist on the butler who has let his selfhood disappear into his professional role. The way it’s told, however, is flawed. The movie gives very little sense that Nobbs and the other characters have existed before the opening frame. Well into the film, we hear Nobbs describe his past in a monologue, which gives Close a nice acting moment but is a clear strike against the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim. We don’t get an involving look at Nobbs’ earlier days, making him seem to have almost sprung into being all too conveniently just before meeting Hubert. By not showing much of Nobbs’ struggles, or establishing much of a status quo, it does little for the audience when his life is upturned.
As the inciting incident for this story, Nobbs meeting Hubert feels contrived. It’s a large coincidence that someone who uncovers Nobbs’ secret not only understands it but shares it. And yet, this premise is not an entirely bad choice. Characters who don’t fit into binaries of gender or sexuality, or both, are so often erased from history and in film that it’s worthwhile to see two of them. McTeer is also one of the best actors in the film, giving Hubert a gruff exterior but also a kind heart.
If Nobbs’ relationship with Jack is not approached well, but still manages to be interesting, the film’s other characters are less engaging. The woman Nobbs is fond of, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), has no redeeming aspects beyond being beautiful. It’s understandable that Joe (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) would pursue her, because he has little real respect for her or thought for the future, despite his plans of taking them both to America. However, it’s odd that even someone as socially inept as Nobbs could fail to see who she really is, especially when he’s risking so much. Meanwhile, Helen and Joe are barely tolerable whenever they’re onscreen; they may have been shaped by the same poverty that afflicts Nobbs, Hubert and so many others, but they’re a noxious pair.
Albert Nobbs had potential. I can’t help but feel, however, that it rests too much on the novelty of showing us Close and McTeer as Nobbs and Hubert. The story needed far more finesse to draw us into their world. The film manages to be moving, but that’s more a credit to these two actors than anything else.