Review: Glenn Close’s transformation can’t carry passionless ‘Albert Nobbs’

TELLURIDE – Poor “Albert Nobbs.” It’s been a hard, hard life so far.  And I’m not referring to the title character Glenn Close portrays in Rodrigo Garcia’s new drama which debuted at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival tonight, but the film itself.  

The story has been a passion project of Close’s for over 20 years ever since she first read the George Moore novella.  She even played the character on the New York Stage in an acclaimed 1982 production.  A movie had numerous fits and starts along the way including a scuttled production a decade ago.  Somehow Close (who also has a screenplay and producer credit) remained steadfast and “Nobbs” is finally in cinematic form.  

You can easily deduce why Close is so enthralled with the character.  In theory it’s a dream role for any actor. Nobbs is a woman who has spent most of her life passing as a man in order to survive in the late 1800s.  It’s unclear how old Nobbs is in the film (perhaps late 40’s or 50’s), but decades of keeping up this charade as a hotel waiter has made him passionless, internalized and almost completely humorless.  Even as a “man,” Nobbs is so buttoned up that the lovely young maids he works with (Mia Wasikowska, Antonia Campbell-Hughes) don’t even register him sexually.  He’s a far cry from the flirty doctor who resides in the hotel, Brendan Gleeson, the possibly alcoholic or gay (take your pick or both) waiter (Mark Williams) or the new handyman (Aaron Johnson) who register much more infatuation and sexual chemistry than Nobbs ever does.  Instead, Nobbs is portrayed as a person so entrenched in his/her facade that he’s pretty much asexual.

The movie’s main storyline, however, jump starts with Nobbs discovering that Hubert (Janet McTeer), a charismatic painter hired to repaint some of the hotel’s rooms, is also a woman.  When Nobbs also learns Hubert has a legal wife he becomes obsessed with discovering how Hubert found her, when the wife discovered she’d married a woman and how Nobbs could possibly find his own wife.  But in Nobbs world, he’s such a strange bird that his use for marriage is only to provide a companion and for someone to assist him in his dream of opening his own smoke and sweet meat shop. Eventually Nobbs decides to charm Waskiowska’s character, but she’s already romantically involved with Johnson’s morally skewed bad boy who has decided they should both try and use Nobbs for their own needs.  Nobbs’ shy attempts at wooing her are naive, so in another world that Wasikowska’s character literally has to attack him with passionate kisses to demonstrate what she’s looking for because the concept is so alien to him.

The decision to be so subtle in the sexuality of the film’s characters actually seems to do the story a disservice.  While Hubert and his wife appear to be a gay couple living as a man and woman so they can survive in society (although Hubert never says he/she is attracted to just women), Nobbs is such a blank slate it’s hard to sympathize with any of his hopes and dreams.  It makes for a great and impressive character study for Close, who is at times convincing as a man, but it’s simply not a character that can carry an almost 2-hour movie.  Perhaps that’s why there so many other people in Nobbs hotel world, but when the cliche’d too young and too immature for each other couple (Wasikowska and Johnson) are the only ones you’re intrigued by, it’s a big problem.  

The screenplay hints there could be more though such as the secrets so many of the characters hide from each other including the Doctor’s affair with another maid, the rich “womanizing” lord (a completely wasted Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who plays more in bed with his best mate than with the ladies or the despised hotel owner (Pauline Collins) who is barely keeping the business a float.  This theme could have worked under another director, but these tangents almost fly pointlessly by Garcia’s eye.

Close and Garcia worked together previously on “Ten Things You Can Tell Just by Looking At Her” and “Nine Lives” (arguably his best film), but he’s simply wrong here.  Garcia’s strengths, most notably in his work for on HBO’s “In Treatment,” is letting actors’ performances drive the story.  That particular talent or direction helps keep “Nobbs” afloat, but can’t ensure you’ve made a satisfying motion picture.  When Nobbs meets his/her fate at the end of the film it lands with hardly any reaction because you simply don’t care.  Making the audience at least feel something about the title character’s journey is Garcia’s responsibility and he doesn’t have the ability to pull it off here.

The buzz on Nobbs, however, has always been regarding Close’s chances at landing a sixth Academy Award nomination and finally winning that coveted Oscar.  Like Sigourney Weaver, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, the idea the legendary Close doesn’t have a statue already is an embarrassment to the Academy.  Her work in “Nobbs” will absolutely make her a player, but she’s going to need strong SAG support and have to work the circuit to guarantee a call to the dance.

“Albert Nobbs” is currently scheduled for a limited release sometime in December.

Look for complete coverage from the 2011 Telluride Film Festival on HitFix and Awards Campaign all weekend. 

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