Trouble downstairs

After all the Oscar and Golden Globes heat, I was looking forward to seeing Albert Nobbs, despite my sentimentality needle going into the red every time I saw the trailer. I remember this film with the weird name standing out of the speculative longlists during the first flush of “Oscar buzz” at the start of the year as it was pretty much the only one I didn’t recognise. I was quickly up to speed: it was the one in which Glenn Close plays a man.

Albert Nobbs is a woman in 1890s Dublin who has adopted the persona of a man in order to get better-paid work. Or at least, that’s what I took away from it. She is also a lesbian, although a repressed one who dreams less of getting it on with another woman, than settling down in respectable marriage with one, so that she can be the husband. Working as a waiter in an upmarket hotel, run by Pauline Collins, one of the few non-Irish actors in the film who manages a decent Irish accent, Nobbs – prim, proper, upright, stiff, reticent, deferential, all those things – meets Janet McTeer’s painter and decorator, a man who also turns out to be a woman in disguise. Except McTeer – who steals the film from under Close’s prim, proper etc. nose – has a wife. We see the couple at home, a lesbian couple who must maintain the dressing-up-box pretence of heterosexuality even in their front room, in case a neighbour should walk past the window.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – apart from: what are the chances of two cross-dressing lesbians in male professions meeting up by pure chance in 1890s Ireland? – this sounds like an original and interesting premise for a period drama. A landmark in “Queer Cinema” but, like Brokeback Mountain, disguised as mainstream entertainment. What a wasted opportunity it turned out to be.

The film’s backstory is far more interesting than the film itself. Based on a 1918 novella by James Joyce-influencing writer George Moore (published in 1927), Glenn Close played the role in a stage adaptation in 1982 and has been trying to bring it to the screen ever since. It’s a passion play for her. And you have to admire her tenacity. The trouble is, if was shocking in 1927, and still a bit shocking in 1982, it’s just not shocking at all in 2012. Indeed, it’s all rather quaint. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez!) in flat, muted colours and at a stately pace, it has the feel of a Sunday night episode of Upstairs Downstairs or something by Catherine Cookson.

It’s a 15 certificate, but needn’t be. At one stage McTeer flashes her breasts at Close as a big reveal that I’m afraid we all saw coming, even if Albert Nobbs didn’t, and Brendan Gleeson is seen going down on Maria Doyle Kennedy, but under the sheets. Beyond that, it’s a U. Not that it needed sex; after all, Nobbs, despite his name, is very much above the belt. But it could have done with a bit more lust, or a bit more colour in its cheeks. It opens so well, with a fabulously mixed parade of hotel guests trooping into Pauline Collins’ formal dining room, including the always-brilliant Gleeson, a gay dandy played by Jonathan Rhys Myers (he gets two scenes in the whole film), and servants fleshed out by the talented likes of Mark Williams, Antonia Campbell Hughes, Mia Wasikowska, Brenda Fricker and the aforementioned Doyle Kennedy.

Such a lot of acting talent to so slender an end. Aaron Johnson is the handyman with eyes for Wasikowska, and their affair is supposed to engage our interest, but doesn’t. (Johnson’s accent is possibly the worst on screen.) She was perfectly ornate in Alice In Wonderland and I bought her as a modern teen in The Kids Are All Right, but Wasikowska fails to breathe life into her mousy maid. Doyle Kennedy and Gleeson are onscreen not enough, and Rhys Meyers hardly at all. The interiors are claustrophobic – all poorly lit corridors and pokey bedrooms – but when we go outside, the period streets scenes were clearly limited by budget, and little air blows through.

I didn’t hate it or anything. There’s not much in it to like, or dislike. Close’s performance, hobbled by an inconsistent accent, is delicate and precise, but Nobbs is hard to understand, she comes across as a cipher, an otherwordly figure who rarely laughs or comes alive. I’m sure this is true to the text, and the play, but far from complex, she’s a bit like Forrest Gump in a bowler hat.

I emerged from the cinema underwhelmed. I wonder if others, tempted by the Oscar buzz, felt the same? It should have been the performance of Close’s career – and some kind souls said it was – but if Robin Williams had played it, and facially he could have, Nobbs might have pulsed off the screen rather than remain skulking in the background.


1 thought on “Trouble downstairs

  1. Interesting review. It sounds like a terrific idea for a film; and one that I must admit has completely passed me by until now. Shame about the execution. Not sure that it needs to be shocking particularly, so its period nature shouldn’t necessarily be an issue for a modern audience. Somebody such as Jeanette Winterson might have done a better job on the screenplay, perhaps, and made the lesbian subplot an actual lesbian subplot, rather than a Hollywood pretence of one? There should be a great story in there, though. Late nineteenth century sexual politics, the history of homosexuality, etc. I can see it being quite well suited to a BBC miniseries, or to Channel 4 Films.

    Thanks, Andrew.

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