REVIEW: Glenn Close Explores Female Sexual Repression in Dowdy, Unfinished-Feeling Albert Nobbs

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All of the characters in Albert Nobbs, a mild and mildly stirring adaptation of the George Moore short story, are dreamers. Employees in a mid-19th century Dublin inn, they dream of each other, chiefly, and the ways in which they might be set free. They deceive each other, as well, so that their dreams are often projected onto false fronts -- of character, of obligation, and -- in a couple of cases -- of tightly bound breasts.

We know, of course, that breasts and more lurk behind the waistcoat of the title character, the hotel's genteel footman, because he is played by Glenn Close. As Mr. Albert Nobbs, Close wears a discreetly waved cap of cropped ginger hair and the bright, blank expression of a small animal caught mid-nibble. Blanched of make-up, her Edwardian features -- balustrade cheekbones, long, straight mouth, and even, almondine eyes -- seem to have been pinched from clay. Mr. Nobbs, as his peers call him, is immaculately devoted to his duties, which include hauling baggage, silently conducting the evening's dinner service, absorbing the indignities of the hotel guests (including a boor played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and knowing when to open his palm for that extra shilling. As run by a fatuous hen named Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), life at the inn is tightly controlled. Nobbs ends each day by adding his extra earnings to a secret stash he tucks under his bedroom's floorboards.

It's a vague kind of emancipation Nobbs dreams of: Though he marks his earnings scrupulously each night and has plans to open a tobacco shop, stepping out into the world requires a little more than capital. Meanwhile, cheeky scullery maid Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) is making eyes at the porridge-shoveling handyman (Aaron Johnson), and the house doctor (Brendan Gleeson) -- kept by Mrs. Baker -- is carrying on with the head chambermaid (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Just passing through on a painting errand is Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a strapping lad with a suspiciously barreled chest. Mrs. Baker goes sweet on Hubert, Hubert takes note of Miss Dawes's blonde curls, and Nobbs gives Hubert an eyeful the night he leaps out of their shared bed, trying to root a flea out of his corset.

Once the mutually held secret is out, as it were, Nobbs treats Hubert as a role model. The latter has a wife (played, in a vivid cameo, by Bronagh Gallagher) and a stable social identity; whatever is going on behind it seems beyond Nobbs's concern. And this is where the script, co-written by Close and novelist John Banville, disperses in too many directions to serve any one of them well. It soon becomes obvious that Nobbs may have disappeared entirely behind his mask: Where Hubert admits to his original name, and describes the domestic abuse that pushed him out of a marriage and into an identity that would let him bring home his own bacon, Albert maintains that his "real" name is Albert. And though he recalls his common upbringing with bitterness ("Life without decency is unbearable," he spits) and tells Hubert of the gang rape that led to his exile, his extreme social and emotional constipation suggest that Nobbs has no past self -- or even basic human instinct -- to speak of.

Across films like Nine Lives and Mother and Child, director Rodrigo García has developed a neo-women's picture aesthetic; he brings a human texture and fearlessness to his sisterhood stories. It would seem fortuitous that Close -- who has been trying to bring this story to the big screen since some time after she starred in a stage version in 1982 -- was paired with García when the project's stars finally aligned. And yet this story of literal and figurative female sexual repression feels curiously unfinished, its many layers rather decorously undisturbed. This is not a story of transgendered triumph or subversion -- in both cases abuse and economics are what got the women into bootstraps. Having successfully passed as men, the question of sexuality is treated as academic. Hubert and his wife have an arrangement that suits both of them socially, and Albert seeks the same, awkwardly tilting his hat at the blooming Miss Dawes. What he actually wants -- beyond a life of decency -- is as opaque as Close's petrified expression.

When Miss Dawes is punished for indulging her own burgeoning sexuality, Albert Nobbs -- shot in silky shades of blue with impeccable, period set direction, framed and paced with a precise hand -- begins to take a dowdy, rather Victorian shape. It's all very decent, in other words, when it seems it might have been much more.

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