It’s no secret that Glenn Close likes taking on bizarre roles – picture the psychotic spurned lover in Fatal Attraction, and Cruella de Vil's egregious appetite for Dalmatian fur. But in ALBERT NOBBS, she transcended what is bizarre to take on an extreme role through her powerful and gripping portrayal of a woman whose sexual identity and feminine voice had been locked up for so long that she no longer knew how to be a woman.
I had to watch it a second time to better observe how Glenn Close, who played Albert Nobbs, said so much by saying so little.
Born an illegitimate child to a mother from a distinguished family, Albert was taken away from her mother and raised in a convent. When her mother died, the money ran out and at fourteen, she was thrown out of the convent into the streets of Dublin. She soon found out that “life without decency is unbearable....”. Abandoned to fend for herself for the first time in her life, she was tragically ‘violated in the streets under the stairs’ by some men [possibly gang raped] and just left there without help.
Living on the street was dangerous and the only way to get off it was to work. Emaciated, she easily passed off as a lad, and began to dress as one to work as a waiter. However, it was clear that while working and living as a man kept her off the odious streets, it did not liberate her as a person. Her life was cloaked in silence and secrecy. As a waiter at Morrison’s Hotel, she did not have a life beyond what she did for a living. It was a life devoid of all human connections: a world of silence that kept others at a safe distance and made all interpersonal exchanges and self-disclosure unnecessary. As a result, she had neither social instincts nor skills, and was clueless how relationships worked.
Man or woman, there’s no way of escaping hidden fears that petrify us. When Albert was made to share his bed overnight with a part-time painter, Hubert, he was mortified. Even so, he would have kept the secret of his sexual identity tightly under-wraps if not for the betrayal of a bloodsucking tick that made its way into his corset that night. That brought on an urgent need to remove his breast-binding corset! It’s comical how small things have a way of creeping up on us to throw us off-guard! He could no longer hide his gender from his bedfellow! Immediately, Albert knew how vulnerable he was to being thrown out into the streets again. He repeatedly implored Hubert not to tell the owner. Hubert soon realized that the only way to pacify the panic-stricken Albert was to bare his feminine bosom – literally – and disclose his gender. As he unbuttoned his work shirt, Albert, thinking that Hubert was a man, feared the unthinkable would once again happen to him (her). Instead, he found himself blown away by Hubert’s unexpected bosom-baring self-disclosure. Hubert went on to disclose that he was an abused wife who had run away from her violent painter husband, taken his work jacket and followed in his footsteps to become a painter.
What I like about this story is that it was not scripted to produce idealistic outcomes to fit the audience's expectations. If a story is to mimic real life, it should be as unpredictable as life truly is: only fairy tales have nice assured endings.
In one poignant scene, Albert and Hubert connected as two human beings – not defined by gender – as two women-turned-men strolling along a wide stretch of beach in frilly frocks and hats. Clothed in their true gender identity, yet moving gawkily as women – the scene was a blending of nature, nurture and necessity. It was a touching moment when the freedom they shared was beyond words.
In the end, Albert bled to death, once again, alone in his bed. But he was contented. Something had changed.
Moments earlier, in a rare display of emotion, he had pounced on the back of Joe, a young chap who was leaving Helen, the waitress he had dreamt of setting up tobacco shop with. In retaliation, Joe fatally flung the smaller-built Albert against the wall. If he felt pain, it did not show. He quietly slipped away from the ensuing commotion, and returned to his room. For the first time in his life, he had stood up for someone; and in doing so, he had stood for something. As he laid there, fading in and out of consciousness, he drifted into the familiar vision of a parlour behind the tobacco shop he had saved up to buy. It would be his first home - with two arm-chairs facing a fire-place. He would no longer be alone.
Simple plots, and powerful performances by the cast work together to bring out a story centred on the lives of three women - Albert, Hubert and Helen - thrown together neither by choice nor preference; yet playing a pivotal role in each others' life. That is the delightful surprise life sends us - people to sustain us, to restore a little decency no matter how hard and painful it gets sometimes. In such company, details are not required.