Albert Nobbs has been something of a dream come true for actress Glenn Close. She starred in the 1982 stage production of the book, written by George Moore. It has taken her, and others, 20 years to get this story of cross-dressing women in Victorian-era Ireland, to the big screen. The struggle to get the picture financed almost matches titular character “Albert’s” struggle to figure out a way to preserve him, or herself, in the closed system that was Dublin in the 19th century. Victory finally came, however, when Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives), son of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), signed onto the project. Having met the director, I can say that he has a certain attentiveness to detail that could see to it that the project would become fully realized.
Albert Nobbs is the story of Albert, a perfectly mannered butler in a high-class hotel, who painstakingly saves, and counts, his money for the eventual dream of starting a sweet shop. All this, however, comes to a halt when Hubert (Janet McTeer), a painter hired by the hotel, is made to room with Albert for the night. Thinking Hubert is asleep, Albert removes his clothing, but Hubert is awakened, and he sees… uh oh, boobs! And learns that Albert is really a woman.
Not to worry, however, because Hubert reveals a secret to Albert in the kitchen the next morning. He unbuttons his jacket and it turns out that he’s a she too. And so begins the careful positioning of the two to live undetected as transgendered persons. Close makes quite good use of the art of espionage, as each movement, each utterance by her is done with the awareness that Albert could be detected as a woman. Much of the enjoyment of the film comes in this sort of Hitchcockian nervousness as to what might happen to her.
And the relationship is mutually beneficial too, as Albert gets some relief from Hubert, knowing that his lifestyle isn’t a singular one and that there are other women living as men too, and even ones with wives!
So, here is my particular issue with the film. While I understand its purpose, as a sort of work of revision, rewriting people into history who before weren’t talked about at all, I think there is ultimately a problem with this notion, and it is because of the time setting.
To help explain my point, I need to recall a film that is currently running through the festivals, and has a similar problem, Any Day Now, directed by Travis Fine, and starring Alan Cumming.
This film, like Albert Nobbs, has a gay theme, but it is not a theme that was pertinent to the era that the setting is placed in. Any Day Now is about a gay couple trying to attain the legal rights to be the guardian of a boy with Down syndrome who has a drug-addicted mother. It is a 2012 film set in the 1970’s. And while the story is very sincere and heartfelt, it is, during review, something of a contemporary debate placed in the setting of the past. Not to say that this was not a real event, it is based on a true story, of course, but the particular choosing of that story to make a film about today, is because that is a major issue today, and was not the premiere topic of discussion when it came to gay rights in the 1970’s. I think the more pertinent way the public thought about the community in those days was of simply learning how to identify it, since at that time, being gay was essentially, “a new form of identity.”
So, this brings me to the little problem about Albert Nobbs that irks me because it is about very complex issues of gender identity which are only now really being taught and thought about in the public and in academia.
Even the initialism LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered) was not formulated until the 1980’s, so this would mean that grouping together transgendered people with other non-heterosexuals was not even a firm idea in language or ideas until sometime before or after this date. And not to mention that even the word homosexual as a marker of sexuality was not even used until the late 19th century in Germany after the American Civil War as a way to talk about whatever was outside the heterosexual majority.
And it is only for this reason that I find Albert Nobbs’ politics, especially the extremely confident character of Hubert, acting as the “gay guide” for Albert, a little confusing. These new identities, and subsequent communities, were only just starting to be formulated in Western society, and the sort of confirmed stance that Hubert has in who he is and where he belongs would not have been something easily found, if even existing at all, so early in time, especially in the Victorian Era, in the British Isles, where sex was pretty much under wraps for all persuasions.
It was not until the publication of My Secret Life, near almost the end of the 19th century and Frank Miller’s brazen My Life and Loves that sex was talked about in Anglo-Saxon society with an openness that had to at first take the form of a sort of confession.
It is for this reason, at least, that I cannot praise the revision that is Albert Nobbs, at least with this idea of history that I have come to learn. But it is a good effort, but one that seems to be a little bit ahead of itself.
Glenn Close plays a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland. Some thirty years after donning men’s clothing, she finds herself trapped in a prison of her own making.