By William Wolf


I have never forgotten the profoundly moving performance Glenn Close gave back in 1982 in Simone Benmussa’s off-Broadway adaptation of 19th Century Irish author George Moore’s short story “Albert Nobbs.” More importantly, Glenn Close kept the work and her experience close to her heart as she nurtured the idea of making the piece into a film. Good things come to one who waits. Through the star’s vision and perseverance during the decades and her ultimate excellent collaboration with those who also saw the potential, “Albert Nobbs” is indeed a movie, a superb one, which I saw at the recent Toronto Film Festival, where it was showcased as a gala event.

There was immediate Oscar buzz for Close’s performance, for which she faced a fresh challenge. The film is a remarkable drama set in poverty-stricken late 19th century Ireland, where Nobbs, who is really a woman, has spent her adult life dressed as a man in order to get work and survive. Nobbs is employed in a Dublin Hotel and has been successful in being accepted as a man. There is, of course, an inner cost to shielding her identity, and the key to making us understand and feel for Nobbs is the combination of depth, perception, dignity and humanity in Close’s performance.

The film, which Close co-produced with Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis and Alan Moloney and co-scripted with Gabriella Prekop and John Banville, and which was sensitively directed by Rodrigo Garcia, deepens the story in its new incarnation, providing more sexual awareness and enabling us to relate to the longings of Nobbs, as well as of other key characters.

It is difficult enough for a woman to portray a man on stage, where there is some distancing from the audience. But with screen close-ups, there is an extra challenge to be believable. There has been astute help with make-up and costuming, but the real triumph lies in Close’s utterly convincing performance. She succeeds in suggesting, as cinema can, the outer and inner complexity of Nobbs via intimate expressions, voice and body language, bringing us ever so close to the character and touching us emotionally. This is basically a tragic story, yet it also is infused with a degree of humor and with life’s ironies. There is one glorious scene in which Nobbs feels a rush of freedom as herself, and Close makes the most of the occasion.

The interaction between characters in the fleshed-out screenplay adds color and strength to the production, and the casting choices are excellent. Australian actress Mia Wasikowska is vivid as the maid Helen, with whom Nobbs develops closeness and harbors a dream of opening a shop together. Helen has her own agenda, as does Aaron Johnson as Joe, Helen’s restless boyfriend who resists being tied down. Also first-rate in their assorted roles are Brendan Gleeson, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Pauline Collins and Brenda Fricker.

Veteran production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein merits praise for the overall look and tone of the film, as do Pierre-Yves Gayraud for the period costuming and Matthew Mungie for make-up. The work, although having its moments of special impact, gains from tastefulness and general subtlety, with a strong sense of place that makes us aware of how difficult life could be like at the time.

“Albert Nobbs” offers an inherent vision of a woman who in one sense was ahead of her time in coping with the reality of her station and who she really was as a person. The film achieves this not through any pedantic method, but through sheer good, convincing drama and a central performance to remember. Sometimes people are consumed with an obsession to fulfill a a particular dream, and when we see their finished product, we may conclude that their talent might have been better directed elsewhere. But Close was right on target, recognizing a very special work and having the faith and determination that it could be reborn in another medium. For that those of us always enthusiastic about welcoming a unique and powerful film should be grateful. A Roadside Attractions release.


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