Hiding in plain sight

Hiding in plain sight

Glenn Close examines the harsh realities of gender inequality in Victorian-era Ireland

By Tim Pompey 02/02/2012

Albert Nobbs
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Starring: Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Janet McTeer
Rated R for some sexuality,
brief nudity and language
1 hr. 53 min.

Watching Albert Nobbs reminds me of those moments in winter when snow first falls from a gray cloud ceiling. If you’re fortunate enough to be in the country, you can stand outside and actually feel the barely audible wind and the hush of lightly falling flakes. If that sounds poetic, you’re right. That’s exactly how this film works.

Albert Nobbs’ (Glenn Close) existence is about secrets, dangerous secrets, and the lengths a woman will go to hide her true identity — and for good reason. Nobbs is a desperate woman posing as a male waiter in a Dublin hotel. She has no family, no husband and no hope of surviving outside the character she has carved out for herself. Women in 19th-century Dublin had no rights, and without a job, she knew she would be thrown out on the street.

For that reason, Nobbs has worked hard to limit her life, to walk carefully, speak carefully and avoid drawing any undue attention to herself. She is a living, breathing model of invisible movement. Only her eyes deftly wandering the room indicate she is alive.

But Nobbs is not without ambition. She has been saving her money and painstakingly planning to buy a tobacco shop. What she really needs is a partner, and therein is her dilemma: Who else would help her? Who else might accept her dual identities?

Glenn Close has spent years bringing this film to life. To do so, she had to take it to Ireland for location, casting and financing. But for those who appreciate the art of filmmaking, her years of determination have paid off.

Close and director Rodrigo Garcia have created a seamless film about quiet desperation, the wide economic divide between rich and poor, and the gray netherworld in which they coexist. It’s a world with little hope or compassion for the poor. A world in which the rules of social separation are strictly enforced.

In this world, Close and Garcia, using a wonderful cast to provide an intimate portrait of Victorian Irish life, have used the Morrison Hotel as a setting to fill each character with different shades of hope and cynicism.

Even more important, the film has an unusual combination of tenderness and brutality. At its heart is a love story — strange, intriguing and ultimately hopeless. Yet it seems to carry along like the ebb and flow of the Irish Sea, with highs, lows, smooth moments and rough waters. But the brutal truth of the story is that, ultimately, anyone swimming in that sea without a boat will disappear.

That’s what happens to Albert. Her inspiration comes via Hubert the housepainter (Janet McTeer), who, like Nobbs, also happens to live a double life. Her flawed hope comes from her love for Helen the housemaid (Mia Wasikowska), whom she envisions as her life partner in her imaginary shop. Her loss comes via Joe the handyman (Aaron Johnson), who sees Albert as little more than his ticket to America.

The film argues that nothing is more powerful than life itself. Some are lucky and some are not. Most get swept up and have only brief moments of inspiration. The best they can hope for is to find a small dream and seize it briefly before the black waters claim their due.

Ultimately, however, the story uncovers the existence of secrets and how those secrets affect lives. To do this, the camera uses the eyes of Nobbs to pan around the room and illuminate all those wonderfully interesting frailties that make up human existence.

We all have secrets. We all need clarity. Albert Nobbs gently reminds us how important it is to look honestly at those secrets, fight against fear, and accept the truth about who we are.

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