Albert Nobbs tells the tale of a butler of the same name working at a ritzy hotel in 19th century Ireland with a big secret; he is, in fact, a she.
Albert has spent the past decades living a careful facade of being a man, painstakingly saving every shilling she receives in tips under a floorboard in her room. However, even the best kept secrets can be broken in an instant, which is exactly what happens to Albert when her employer orders her to share her room with a painter who has come to do a job for the hotel.
This is the premises of Albert Nobbs, a movie that was recently released on DVD here in the USA. As a fan of dramas and historical pieces, not to mention someone who has read a number of history books on cross-dressing women (seriously, I have), I knew this was a film I could not pass up.
The movie starts out well, quickly immersing viewers into the prim and proper world of 19th century Europe with its strict social classes as the servants are preparing for another day of work at the hotel. The scene feels reminiscent of something out of Downton Abbey which gave me hope that I was in for a treat. Glenn Close portrays Albert as the perfect butler and shy, closed-off “man” well. Therefore, when Albert comes face-to-face with her first problem of the movie in the form of the painter, Hubert Page, I felt sympathetic and drawn in. How in the world was she going to handle this man who now knew her secret? Now, I’ve read other stories where a man discovers a woman is a cross-dresser and, after vowing to keep her secret, becomes friends with her and then romantically interested. Albert Nobbs, however, was not going to play this game and instead hits the audience with a twist; Albert isn’t the only woman masquerading as a man. At this point, I had no idea where the movie was headed. Unfortunately, it appears that neither did the people making the movie.
The next three-quarters of the movie seems odd. As I not a film expert, I can’t tell you if it was the directing, the acting, the writing, or all of the above, but whatever the case, I felt the story got a bit confused after a great start and I began to feel completely detached from the characters. Albert befriends Hubert and discovers her friend is a married lesbian. The next thing you know, Albert decides she wants a wife, too. Yet her interest in this other woman, a maid working at the same hotel, comes out of nowhere and never feels real. By this point Albert appeared almost alien to me. Her odd behavior would have made sense if the situation was reversed and the maid was in love with Albert the man versus Albert supposedly being so in love with this maid, but that was not the case. As for this maid who Albert is supposedly interested in, she obviously has zero interest in Albert, romantically or otherwise, and comes off as rather annoying. Even toward the end when viewers were supposed to feel some sympathy for her, I felt nothing. In fact, I didn’t really believe or feel anything for most of the characters as the movie went on.
To top it all off, an almost Charles Dickens-like villain appears and plots to steal Albert’s hard-earned money for himself. I have nothing against that kind of plot, but in this case, I felt the plot description and first quarter of the movie had misled the audience as to what kind of a story Albert Nobbs would be. As I said, the story feels slightly confused and I believe that created two very different feels for the beginning of the movie and the rest. I had expected more of a character journey, a woman trying to figure out who she is after living as a man for so long. If you read the description of the plot put out on movie review websites and movie rental sites, it speaks of the restrictions placed on women of that time and how Albert’s meeting with Hubert leads her to want to escape the facade of being a man. Instead, it became a story of bad guys trying to swindle the good guy.
Despite waiting eagerly for it to come to the theaters, I hesitated to see Albert Nobbs after I saw the reviews were just so-so. Now that I’ve seen the movie myself, I will say this: while Albert Nobbs is nowhere near the worst movie I have ever seen, in combination with characters that I couldn’t connect to and a plot that just couldn’t seem to decide where to go, I have to admit I’m glad I didn’t spend the money to see it in theaters. If you’re looking for an unusual period drama with all of its flaws, you might want to check it out. If you’re like me and are looking for the perfect movie, well, I think you can guess.