A “trouser role” in opera is a male character who sings alto and can be performed by a woman pretending to be a man.
Albert Nobbs is about a woman who takes it a few steps further, determining to live her entire life as a member of the opposite sex.
That’s the true but semi-fantastical premise of the screenplay by Close and John Banville. In Victorian Ireland (and elsewhere around the world during various epochs), women to simply survive or to realize their ambitions have opted to go through life as males, never letting society know of their secret.
Close appeared in a stage production of Albert Nobbs nearly 30 years ago and has been trying ever since to get it made into a movie. She finally succeeded, earning herself a best actress Oscar nomination in the process. (Co-star McTeer was nominated for supporting actress.)
Directed by Rodrigo García, Albert Nobbs is set in late 19th-century Dublin in a small hotel catering to genteel ladies and gentlemen. The owner, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), seems a decent enough sort, but she’s always fretting about making ends meet. The chief butler/attendant is Albert Nobbs (Close), a rawboned fellow who has been a fixture at the hotel for decades.
Albert is a stickler for protocol: A proper hotel operates best when everyone knows his job and devotes himself to serving the customer.
Of course Albert is terribly quiet about his private life. Forced to share his room with a workman who is painting the hotel’s interior, Albert is mortified when his unwelcome bedmate discovers the truth: Albert is actually a woman.
Of course the interloper, Hubert, has a secret of his own. He, too, is a woman posing as a man. What’s more, Hubert (played by McTeer, who uses her imposing height to great advantage) has been living with a woman in their own version of a traditional marriage.
This is a revelation that gives the lonely Albert hope.
In fact, Albert sets his/her sights on wooing Helen (Mia Wasikowksa), one of the hotel chambermaids. After years of scrimping and saving, Albert has a small fortune hidden under the floorboards. Now he dreams of marrying and starting his own modest business.
But first he’ll have to compete with the loutish but crudely charming Joe (Aaron Johnson), the hotel handyman who has been sniffing around Helen’s skirts.
The main problem with Albert Nobbs is that McTeer’s overwhelmingly masculine Hubert pulls focus from Close’s tentative Albert.
Hubert is a swaggering blue-collar type, all muscle and attitude. By comparison, Albert comes off as, well, a closeted gay man terrified of letting too much out. He’s so tightly wound and reluctant to reveal anything that we are denied entry into his private world.
In any case, Albert Nobbs is a thought-provoking minor-key tragedy marked by a nice sense of time and place and a slew of solid performances (I haven’t yet mentioned the supporting work from the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Phyllida Law and other instantly recognizable faces from British TV and movies).
But at its heart there lingers a frustrating enigma.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.