Lady Looks Like A Dude (Kinda): ‘Albert Nobbs’ Is A Drag

(Films discussed in this post: Jane Eyre, Restless, Albert Nobbs.)Best Actress is one of few categories this year in which there is much suspense about who the winner will be. This year’s Academy Award nominations went primarily for established actresses in material that received mixed reviews — The Iron Lady, My Week With Marilyn, The Help, and Albert Nobbs are all Oscar grab movies that underwhelmed the majority of critics overall, featuring performances from esteemed actresses that trumped the actual quality of the films. (Ingenue Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, at least, was an exception to this rule — though there is a consensus that she, too, was the best thing about that movie.)

Who was omitted? Charlize Theron in Young Adult, Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Tilda Swinton in We Need To Talk About Kevin are the three most conspicuous snubs. Each of those movies is a far cry edgier than all the Best Actress movies (save the “safe” edgy choice The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which may feature rape and whatnot but is also based on an extremely popular book). Those ladies weren’t playing “Oscar grab” roles — physically transformative parts, often in stories based on a well-known public figure’s life. Margaret Thatcher, Marilyn Monroe, and an African-American maid at the heart of the Civil Rights movement? Those are Oscar grab roles. So is the one for which Glenn Close is nominated, the most transformative role of all — playing a woman who passes as a man in 19th century Ireland.Albert Nobbs is directed by Rodrigo Garcia — by my estimation, one of the most underappreciated filmmakers working these days. His filmography is focused almost exclusively on women, from Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (also featuring Glenn Close) to last year’s beautiful, underseen drama Mother And Child starring Annette Bening, Jimmy Smits, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Naomi Watts. He has yet to deliver what you might call a “perfect” film, but his stories portray characters so vividly that they almost negate the actual plot of the movie.

Albert Nobbs is similar in that way, though with a very different sort of “female” character. Albert lives a solitary life as a waiter in a Dublin hotel, keeping to himself, careful to never be seen out of his jacket. He hides money in the floorboards of his room, dreaming of opening up a tobacco shop someday. His isolation changes once he meets a man named Hubert Page, hired to paint the hotel. The fact that the role of Hubert Page, as played by Janet McTeer, is nominated for Best Supporting Actress should give you some idea of the wild, unlikely coincidence that kick-starts this movie.

Other key players include Helen Dawes, played by the winsome Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right), and studly handyman Joe (Kick-Ass). When Albert learns that the lady-in-drag Hubert managed to take a wife, he fantasizes about doing the same — with Helen. Unfortunately, Helen has already taken a more likely liking to Joe — after all, Helen is a pretty blonde, Joe a strapping young man, and Albert is… a tiny, frail old guy with breasts and no penis. This highlights something even more curious about Albert Nobbs than his hidden gender. Are we meant to believe that Albert is a little, um… slow?

How else to explain it? Albert has unreasonable, far-fetched expectations about his “romance” with Helen. And he doesn’t seem to have a very solid plan for informing her that he’s a she, either. As portrayed (and co-written) by Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs is an idiot savant with virtually no people skills or acquired knowledge about the ways of the world. It’s like Forrest Gump in drag, and yet no one in the movie ever comments on Albert’s simple-mindedness, leading us to wonder if the movie itself is aware of how sad and delusional this character is. Albert is a difficult character to warm up to because he’s so out of touch and clueless; the only emotion we can really muster is pity. Close’s performance is a bit one-note in that way; Nobbs doesn’t really undergo a transformation in the movie. There’s no character arc. He’s a tragic figure, a martyr — but standing for what, exactly?As a film, Albert Nobbs has many good qualities — strong performances all around from the supporting cast and an unusual, unpredictable storyline. You might think Helen and Joe will be come to admire and support Albert throughout the course of the film upon learning of his secret, but Albert Nobbs thankfully isn’t that kind of movie. Garcia allows many characters to be despicable, something not many filmmakers are willing to do. The ending isn’t heartwarming or tidy. Any feminist or lesbian themes are open to interpretation, since meek Albert isn’t exactly portrayed as gay; it’s like the idea of sexuality never occurred to him in all these years. He passes as a man, therefore he must take a wife rather than a husband. Delving deeper into this might have made a more interesting movie, but probably not an Oscar-nominated one. Still, this isn’t one of those rah-rah “sisters doing it for themselves” movies. There’s a little of that in the character of Hubert, but Albert is too lonely and pathetic for us to to take any pleasure in his disguise.

Which brings us to my main problem with Albert Nobbs. Forgetting all of the above, it was impossible for me to buy that either Albert or Hubert could so easily pass as men. McTeer takes on the more masculine of the two roles, smoking and stomping about, but she looks like a woman playing dress-up. (After the film, someone asked me: “Was that k.d. lang?” I myself was often reminded of Jane Lynch.) Meanwhile, Albert is the opposite, attempting to retreat into him/herself — but he is still built like a woman, still carries himself as a woman. (And in both characters, it’s visibly obviously that their chests are female, not male.) Even if no one suspected Albert of being a woman, his femininity would surely make everyone think he was gay. Right?By not addressing this, the film makes it difficult to buy into this story, coming off more like theater (in which more suspension of disbelief is required). I don’t blame either McTeer or Close, exactly, but neither came across as male enough for me to agree with their Oscar nominations. Close has a handful of scenes in which her gender is nearly invisible, but just as many where it is not — the casting doesn’t work nearly as well as another Academy Award-nominated performance from a few years ago, Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. It’s a different sort of role, but you could really believe that Huffman had been born a man, and also see how people might now think she’s a woman; here, you have to force yourself to go with it. Overall, Albert Nobbs is a well-made and well-acted film despite the conspicuous gender-bending.

In Albert Nobbs, our protagonist’s chances of landing Mia Wasikowska are pretty slim when the much more handsome Aaron Johnson is around; Miss Wasikowska spent 2011 romancing half of young Hollywood’s most eligible males, it seems. The choice between Aaron Johnson and a butch lady dressed as a dude isn’t nearly as daunting a romantic triangle as the one facing Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre. A young lass forced to choose between the affections of Michael Fassbender and Jamie Bell? Now there’s a challenge.Jane Eyre isn’t a Jane Austen novel, but falls into the same category of Brit dramas that seem to be remade every couple of years. It’s hard to get excited about a new adaptation, since they’re all pretty much the same movie. Now, I wouldn’t call 2011’s Jane Eyre “exciting,” but there is a certain lived-in quality to it that sets it apart from stuffier period pieces. The art direction and costumes feel just right, and the cinematography is gorgeous without calling attention to itself. I felt truly transported back to the 19th century in a way that isn’t typical of these movies. My compliments to director Cary Fukunaga.

The story, as always, if of a proper young woman named Jane, orphaned and abused as a child, who has grown up as more free-thinking and outspoken than her peers. She’s supposed to be a “plain Jane,” and even though Mia Wasikowska is a looker, you can buy it. On the surface, this is a story about a governess who has both Michael Fassbender and Jamie Bell, two of the most dashing men imaginable, chomping at the bit to marry her — also, they both want her to employ her, and then she needs to figure out what to do with an unexpected inheritance. It’s the ultimate “white girl problems” movie. (Lucky bitch.) But you can’t help but admire Jane Eyre — both the movie and the character — for daring to be straightforward and dowdy amidst more gussied-up girls (and period pieces). Fukunaga has made a film that brings fresh vitality to an oft-told, often musty romance, anchored by exceptional performances all around (Judi Dench, too!).If the love in Jane Eyre manages to evoke very specific values of a very specific time and place (long outdated now), then Restless is a more timeless love story — meaning a more cliche one. Restless stars Mia Wasikowska again, now playing a modern-day girl with a cute pixie cut — only in this movie, she has terminal cancer. With only a few months left to live, she meets her apparent soul mate in Enoch, played by Henry Hopper (Dennis Hopper’s son). Enoch is petulant and morbid, attending funerals for fun and that sort of thing, apparently because he is an orphan. His best (and only) friend is the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot. Yes, Restless is that kind of movie.

The word “twee” appears no less than five times on the film’s Metacritic page, and that’s what it is. Borrowing heavily from Harold & Maude (and a bit from Fight Club), it comes as a surprise that this slight drama is Gus Van Sant’s follow-up to Milk, which feels exponentially more mature and nuanced in comparison (and I’m not even the biggest Milk fan). By turns insightful and false, it’s the sort of film you expect to be someone’s first or second feature, not their fourteenth. Restless is more concerned with being cute and quirky than actually dealing with the heavy subject matter at hand; it makes 50/50 look like The Seventh Seal by comparison. The most dramatic moments flail, the most self-consciously precious are godawful, but in between there are several strong scenes, and both Wasikowska and Hopper are more charming than the screenplay probably deserves. As Van Sant movies go, it’s definitely toward the bottom of the barrel — but there are far worse barrels to dig around in.

Jane Eyre: Lucky bitch.

Albert Nobbs: Worth dragging yourself to the theater.

Restless: Yawn…

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