From the instant Dr Hollaran (Brendan Gleeson) and Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) share a moment at a costume party for which neither of them have a costume, the scene is set for this thought provoking story. They are without costume for entirely different reasons; the good doctor has no time for frivolity and Nobbs is in his work attire as even when there are events staff need to stay in their uniforms.
This gives a subtle hint of what is to come, and gives a glimpse into the much deeper issue of class differences and the ambiguities, the latter of which provides much of the wit of Albert Nobbs. Nobbs is a waiter/butler is a posh hotel in Dublin, and lives in a small room at the top. He’s a hard working individual who lives an innocuous life while all the time guarding a huge secret; Albert Nobbs is really a woman.
She is posing as a man in order to have a good job whose wages will allow her to save up and hopefully open her own shop. Despite the main character also being the title of the film, it isn’t the close up on the life of the assiduous and shy member of the working classes in Ireland, so beautifully played by Close, which you might expect.
The heart of Albert Nobbs is the cast of eccentric characters that also work in the hotel, and it gives the hint of being a version of Separate Tables, albeit more sexually repressed. We have the drunken butler, the bossy proprietress and the maids-some older and chatty and one young and daring. There are also the guests who are both upper class and flamboyant, and the teen rascal whose sexually potent presence cause problems for all.
This is ‘Upstairs – Downstairs’ at its best, all centering around a wonderful ensemble rapport, and the whole group works together perfectly. Youthful energy comes courtesy of Aaron Johnson and Mia Wasikowska who are literally bursting with the viciously passionate sexuality of young love, and their relationship is only one of the pieces in the marvelous jigsaw of lust and love that is hidden behind the hotel’s closed doors.
The doctor sneaks around with one of the older maids while the young noblemen trounce around with a constant parade of both men and women. The prissy Mrs Baker even seems rather more ebullient when the young man on the staff goes about his work.
This whirlwind of secret affairs is the ideal context into which to place the enigmatic and somewhat somber Albert Nobbs. Close plays the hotels odd one out, the lone member to have removed themselves entirely from the maelstrom of sex and relationships. She stands alone, and the backdrop of the hotel just assists us further in seeing those idiosyncrasies that make up this wonderfully complex character.
The only problem with Albert Nobbs is that at times it takes itself too seriously and gets bogged down. It is also slightly overlong and there was no need to work so hard at the end to tie up every loose said. That said, the performances from all are outstanding.