Friday, January 27, 2012

A gender-bending story set in the 1890s

How you react to Albert Nobbs, a project that Glenn Close reportedly spent two decades trying to bring to the screen, depends almost entirely on how you react to Close in the title role; she's playing a woman posing as a man in 19th Century Ireland. Close, who played the role on stage in the 1980s, brings the project to the screen under the direction of Rodrigo Garcia (Mother and Child and Nine Lives). As written by Close and John Banville and based on a novella (Celibate Lives) by George Moore, Albert Nobbs feels as meticulously crafted as Close's make-up. But here's the thing: I couldn't buy Close as a woman successfully passing as a man. Maybe it's her delicate facial features. Whatever the case, Nobbs looks like a strange version of Close, pinched into a constricted, almost neutered impression of a man. The screenplay tells us that Nobbs decided -- partly for economic reasons -- to pose as a man, but the movie also serves as commentary on how some people have responded to societies bound by rigid gender-role conventions. While working at a hotel, Nobbs meets Hubert Page, a house painter played by Janet McTeer, who brings robust conviction and humor to her role as another woman posing as a man. McTeer's Hubert essentially steals the picture from the deeply repressed and fussy Nobbs, who dreams of opening a tobacco shop. Hubert lives with a woman who loves and accepts him; he suggests that Nobbs also might be able to find some semblance of normal life. Nobbs then turns his attention to Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a co-worker at the hotel. There's genuine poignancy in watching Nobbs, a man of limited imagination, pursue a dream that we know is beyond his reach. At its best, Albert Nobbs stirs emotion, but I never entirely shook the distracting awareness that I was watching Close create an illusion that didn't quite convince.

*For the record, not everyone shares my view of Close's performance, certainly not the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who nominated her for a best-actress Oscar. The Academy does agree on McTeer, though. She was nominated in the best-supporting actress category.

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