Based on a short story by George Moore, Albert Nobbs is a period drama set in Ireland in the 19th century. The film, which probably would’ve gone under most peoples’ radar on release, found itself in the odd position of having two Oscar nominated performances. Glenn Close for her role as Albert Nobbs and Janet McTeer for her role as Hubert Page. While neither actor won, they remain noteworthy because of the gender-reversal nature of the performances. Having been released in slected cinemas in 2011, it got its national release in 2012, obviously hoping to use some of the momentum from the 84th Academy Awards to garner a bigger box office return.
Albert Nobbs (Close) is a woman, pretending to be a man so that she can maintain her position as butler in an Irish hotel owned by Mrs. Baker in the 19th Century. Highly praised for her work ethic, she finds her life turned upside-down by the arrival of a painter and decorator called Hubert Page (McTeer), also a woman pretending to be a man. Hubert, who is married shows Albert that she does not have to live alone and can even get married. Spurned on by this revelation, Albert begins to try and court a young maid called Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), but she has other plans.
While the performances range from good (Close and Brendan Gleeson as a Doctor who stays at the hotel) to great (McTeer is the star for sure), the overwhelming feeling left with the audience after seeing Albert Nobbs is one of utter depression. Never have I seen a film that presented such an array of thoroughly unlikable and pitiful characters. Wasikowska seems like a vaguely sympathetic character until she goes along with the plan to rip-off Nobbs at which point any moral ambiguity to her character is stripped away. Gleeson has a better understanding of the social conventions than most of the others, but he refuses to make a stand for most of the running time, and what is the point of seeing what’s wrong if you’re not willing to do anything about it?
Therefore the whole enjoyment from Albert Nobbs rests on McTeer’s broad, manly shoulders, and she gives a brave and bold performance that almost lifts the whole film into bearable territory. Almost. Sadly the crushing weight of depressing plot twists and overall sense that while you are invited to watch these characters complete their story arcs, none of them are going to experience anything close to happiness.