“Life without decency is unbearable”
I really enjoy films residing in the duplicitous limbo between aristocracy’s flights of fancy and the laborers at their beck and call. Rodrigo García‘s Albert Nobbs is the latest of such endeavors containing a little of its own singular intrigue as the dark secret of a meek little man’s identity rests alongside the petty constraints of social status and unwritten rules of gossip amongst two opposing classes colliding within Morrison’s Hotel’s 19th century Dublin establishment. The impeccable head waiter adored by staff and guests alike, his story of woe and sorrow delivers the immeasurable pains of a lost soul forced to live a lie in the shadows to even live at all. Thought to be scraping by the only way he could, the startling revelation of another like him opens his eyes to the possibilities of a future unlike any he’s imagined through dreams of lofty ambition and unchecked optimism.
Based on George Moore‘s 1918 novella “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs”, this glimpse behind the scenes of a posh hotel hides many more secrets than just that of its titular character. Between the indiscretions of waiters like Sean’s (Mark Williams) goofy escapades to imbibe alcohol, maids like Mary (Maria Doyle Kennedy) sneaking off for late night trysts with Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), or guests like the Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and his boorish company engaging in unseemly actions behind closed doors, Mrs. Baker’s (Pauline Collins) humble cove is unafraid of controversy as long as it doesn’t prevent her pockets being lined. So it goes as no surprise that the most revered member of its band of eccentrics is discovered to be a woman. Yes, kindly Mr. Nobbs (Glenn Close) isn’t a mister at all.
And for the first half of the movie, this revelation is little more than a detail lingering in the backs of our minds as we watch him/her go about the daily routines. He knows every regular guest’s likes and dislikes and is humbly at anyone’s service whenever they desire. The kids love his strict code of conduct as a servant to their higher social standing, Mrs. Baker greedily accepts his modesty so she can lord his work as her own doing being the boss and all, and the few travelers staying for indeterminate spells with compassion in their hearts admire and respect his professionalism. Nobbs is but one of many service folk at work yet he is their silent general leading by example at the head of the servant’s table. Sean and the men look up to him while young Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska) appreciates what he stands for and the leeway given when running her mouth behind closed doors.
But everything changes when a house painter by the name of Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) arrives and is offered to spend the night in Nobbs’ quarters. Albert tries his best to deflect Mrs. Baker’s veiled order to uphold these sleeping arrangements too afraid his secret would be revealed. To his surprise and dismay, however, Page too proves to be a woman hiding as a male to sustain a living in tough times. Married and in love—to a woman—she becomes an inspiration to Nobbs and a beacon illuminating the possibility for more than just the celibate life in fear he had been living. The dreams of buying a shop with tips collected under a floorboard to retire a tobacconist now populate with a young woman at his side for the front counter. The possibility to turn his hard existence into one of wealth to support a family while finally smiling at customers of his own is made real.
As you might imagine, as soon as these goals appear achievable they also become almost impossible to realize. The decade brings Typhoid Fever, raises tough boys like Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson) in the care of drunkards, and cultivates myriad of hopes for escape to America that will never come to fruition. A once well-oiled machine, Morrison’s becomes a hotbed of tragedy and heartbreak as resolve is shattered and the end grows near. But all the while Albert Nobbs remains vigilant and steadfast in his quest for rebirth. He visits the Pages and bolsters his attitude to putting a life without burden and a wife on his arm within reach, yet the promise only sets him up for the bittersweet reality of fate’s fickle ways.
Good nature and empathy make Nobbs an easy mark for betrayal; the little man of so much faith getting replaced by one privy to the cutthroat wiles of humanity. A weathered life bearing the scars of struggle and pain of ridicule and disrespect, it’s a role so nuanced and full of tiny moments acted by slight lip curls and highly emotive eyes that Glenn Close deserves any praise thrown her way. She embodies this character’s sorrow so completely that his crescendos are powerful and his falls utterly devastating. So wrapped up in despising the monsters surrounding him, though, we must take pause to comprehend the full weight of his actions once optimism decimates thirty years of carefully constructed rules that kept him safe. We care so whole-heartedly in his charity that we forget his own deceivingly selfish motives.
Some plotlines will prove overly convenient but such blemishes can be forgiven since short stories need brevity to unravel their many layers. The supporting cast wonderfully gives us a distraction from the contrivances and the exposed relationships captivate as much as Nobbs’ tale. Everyone has their reasons for residing at the hotel and each is brought to the point warranting the decision of how the rest of their lives will be led. Many choose the righteous path but it’s those who falter that are ultimately the reason for our hero’s final, exhilarating loss of restraint. Long trapped inside a prison locked away from the freedom of being whom he was born to be, happiness was always merely an oasis out of arm’s reach until now. Knowing the dream is possible saves him from forever striving towards something he can never have.
 Mia Wasikowska and Glenn Close in ALBERT NOBBS Photo credit: Patrick Redmond
 Aaron Johnson and Glenn Close in ALBERT NOBBS Photo credit: Patrick Redmond
 Janet McTeer in ALBERT NOBBS Photo Credit: Patrick Redmond