Release Date: 1-27-2012
Run time: 114 min.
Period: 1860s Ireland
Costume Designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Continuing on the theme of the sexual politics of dress, Albert Nobbs is a very interesting costume piece. Set in 1860s Dublin, our titular character Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) is not at all who he appears to be. And that is, a she. For thirty years, Albert, a woman, has been dressing as a man.
When we meet Albert, he is working as a waiter in a beautiful hotel. Introverted, quiet, and dutiful, his life seems joyless. We soon find out that he has dreams, including opening a tobacco shop and having an independent life. The audience, however, already knows Albert’s quandary – that he is, in fact, a woman, hiding in plain sight.
It is not until Albert meets Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), another woman disguised as a man, that his life truly begins. Through Page’s example, Albert learns that the life he’s always yearned for (and more importantly, the love he’s yearned for) is within his reach.
Hubert Page has a wife and a painting business. No one seems to be the wiser as Page hulks his tall frame around and dangles cigarettes rakishly from the side of his mouth. Albert, inspired, decides to pursue his dreams.
Enter Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a fetching young maid at the hotel who catches Albert’s eye. Helen becomes involved with the young, handsome, scheming, dim-witted Joe (Aaron Johnson). Joe instructs Helen to use Albert – he wants Albert’s money so that he can finance his trip to America. With Helen at his side, only perhaps…
Helen becomes pregnant with Joe’s child and he instantly wants nothing to do with her. In a knockdown drag-out fight, Joe throws Albert against a wall. Albert hits his head, hard, and bleeds from his ear. These days, we know that blood coming from the ear means a skull fracture, but back then it was more of a mystery. Albert lays down on his bed and silently dies, having defended the honor of the woman he loves.
In the morning, Helen discovers his corpse, and the resident doctor (Brendan Gleeson) discovers Albert’s secret. News soon spreads that Albert was a woman. When Hubert Page returns to the hotel for a painting job, Helen is still there, but abandoned, and desperate to hold on to her child, whom she has named Albert. Hubert (having lost his wife to typhoid fever) just might have a solution for her…
The interesting part in this film is the technical aspect of how the women are made to look like men in that period. At certain points in the film, we see the undergarments that flatten breasts and remove curves. It’s torturous. All of this suffering, to gain a bit of freedom. Whereas Albert dresses in a more formal manner (befitting his profession), Page dresses in a looser, more working class fashion. They both solve the “how do I hide these curves” dilemma in different ways. It’s quite interesting.
At one point in the film, Hubert Page and Albert put on dresses and go out as women. It’s pretty hilarious to see these women, accustomed to moving through life as men, make the shift in their minds and comportment back to being feminine. The dresses look awkward and foreign on them; they have truly achieved a level of comfort with their masculinity.
Beyond a gender-bender kind of film, it is also an upstairs-downstairs kind of film. Wealthy, fashionable Europeans live in the hotel and are waited on by Albert, Helen and the like. The upper-crusty costumes on the hotel guests are magnificent; the color palette is a gorgeous muted range of subdued hues. All of the details are there. It’s lovely.
The performances are also quite nice – Glenn Close as Albert is truly moving, and Janet McTeer as Page is a breath of fresh air. The film has slow moments, but it’s not an action movie, for Pete’s sake. The costumes are truly lovely. It’s interesting to think about Albert Nobbs in comparison to Pariah – while they are apples and oranges in terms of the budget, the prep time, and the period – they explore the same kind of thematic elements and it is all described through costume. Here, we get the big-budget, period version of that story… and it is worth seeing!