By: Henry J. Fromage (Five Beers) –
In 1982, Glenn Close received a hearty dose of acclaim for her stage portrayal of an Irish woman masquerading as a man in the late 1800s. Later in her career, she tried to revisit the same role, but this time adapting it to the big screen. It took several stops and starts over the course of fifteen-odd years, but in 2011, Albert Nobbs became a reality.
Oscar pundits gave her an early lead in the Best Actress race, and all of the elements of a good Oscar story were there- a long time labor of love from one of Hollywood’s most well-liked actresses working off of five Oscar nominations without a win. I was rooting for her myself, having enjoyed her work in several meaty film roles and a supporting turn on the great The Shield. I also felt bad about the 1987 Oscar flub that saw Cher win Best Actress over the most terrifying performance I’d ever seen- Close’s turn in Fatal Attraction.
Scary, but not enough to make my dick go for the lifeboats
However, critical reception wasn’t too kind, even as she nabbed her sixth nomination for her role. I held out hope, though, determined to form my own opinion.
The story, about a hotel writer trying to save up enough to open a tobacconist’s shop while searching for a woman to share her life with, is compelling enough when you add in the transgender wrinkle, and there’s no denying the intriguing complexities it brings up regarding gender and sexuality. The production values and art direction are also excellent, and do a great job immersing the viewer in the era.
First and foremost, though, this is an acting showcase. Mia Wasikowska shows again why she’s one of the rising stars in the business as a sassy maid that gets caught between the affections of Nobbs and those of a lower-class bad boy with big dreams (played by Aaron Johnson of Kick-Ass). Close herself has several Oscar moments, particularly when Nobbs revisits the past, but its fellow Oscar nominee Janet McTeer that steals the film, playing another woman masquerading as a man, but one that’s more self-assured and multidimensional than Nobbs. She, more than Close, finally convinces the audience of the film’s central conceit- that the two of them could pass as men for as long as they did.
It still takes awhile
As much as I wanted to like this film, its insistence on ham-handed obviousness couldn’t let me. The script is chock full of tongue-in-cheek allusions to the fluidity of gender roles and the nation of disguise that must have looked clever on paper, but which make you want to yell “We get it already!” at the screen after five or so. Close’s performance in particular s infected by this, coming off at times as broad and overpronounced, which is a fact when you consider how quiet and introverted her character is.
Show. Don’t. Tell. So much plot expression is delivered via monologue that I’m surprised they didn’t shave the budget and just have one camera focused on Close as she read the script to us bedtime story-style.
Not Johnson. The one thing I believed about his performance was that he couldn’t read.
Once you no longer have an Albert Nobbs (SPOILERS? Maybe she went to Disneyland), you’d expect an Albert Nobbs to be over. Hold your horses, there’s still ten or so minutes of overly tidy wrap-up to go. Because I, for one, couldn’t have left the theater without seeing whether Mrs. Baker would ever get the scratch together to repaint her hotel or not.
All of the above are pitfalls that a lot of stage adaptations fall into. With a play, you’ve already lost the total suspension of disbelief battle with that cardboard moon hanging from the rafters, and the people in row 36 have to be able to see and hear you somehow. Overacting and repetition come with the territory, and something about the extra investment that goes into attending a live performance makes a lengthy epilogue more tolerable.
That being said, you’d still want to sneak a beer or two into the theater if you watched it live, and the reason is all the goddam schmaltz. In one scene Close and McTeer’s characters put on dresses for the first time since their childhoods. Watching their years of assumed masculinity conflict with the gender they had been born and raised with made for one of the strongest scenes of the year… until it ended with Close running along a beach, with a face full of joy and the music swelling around her.
Glenn Close, probably
I wish this earnest film, whose heart was in the right place, had turned out better. The story’s still worth your time, but much, much more suited for live theater. Watch it there if you ever have the chance.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Albert talks to him/herself
Take a Drink: every time Albert counts his/her money
Drink a Shot: whenever you see a bare chest. Spoiler- it’s never Mia Wasikowska.