The passion project is a hit or miss proposition for any actor. More often than not, the project that an actor spends years trying to get to the screen gets a quiet, lukewarm release and only the briefest of awards buzz before quietly slinking away to DVD to be vaguely remembered years later. At best, it will be a showcase for the lead actor and little else and there may be a nomination here and there thrown for in for good measure. Glenn Close has spent the better part of two decades trying to get Albert Nobbs to the screen after playing the part in a stage production in 1982. She became so involved with the project that she is not only plays the titular Nobbs but she also produced the film, co-wrote the screenplay and wrote an original song for the film.
This type of dedication to the material is very evident in the film directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Close plays Albert with such meticulous restraint and utter believability, that in some ways it shoots itself in the foot. She’s too good in the role, if that makes any sense. The character of Albert Nobbs is a tricky beast in itself. Set in 19th century Ireland, Nobbs is a woman posing as a man in order to work as a butler in a hotel, dutifully saving up money in order to purchase a tobacco shop. Close’s performance is appropriate to the overall tone of the film; bloodless, yet passionate in its devotion to a docile character and story.
The film drags along as we experience the dull, dramatically placid world of Nobbs. Most of what’s interesting seems to permeate the edges of the film such as Jonathan Rhys Myers’ brief turn in the film as a frequent hotel guest who it is strongly hinted is a closet homosexual despite his public womanizing and rambunctiousness. There are only brief allusions and pop ups to this character who seems to be leading a much more interesting story than Nobbs ever is throughout the film.
This may actually be the whole point of the film but it’s all delivered so inertly that the audience is lulled into a deep depression as we see Nobbs delve deeper and deeper into her lost and confused identity. Rhys Myer’s brief turn is a bit of clunky maneuvering at the themes that lie within the heart of the film. Mia Wasikowska plays a maid at the hotel that Nobbs develops an infatuation with and dreams of taking in as a wife to help run his tobacco shop. Aaron Johnson is a new co-worker who becomes enveloped in this almost non-existent love triangle. As the audience and Wasikowska’s character knows, there is no future with Nobbs but Wasikowska’s character takes advantage of Nobbs’ kindness and generosity for expensive dates and gifts. Unfortunately, neither Wasikowska nor Johnson are developed in any meaningful way until close to the end where a climactic escalation ends as quietly as the rest of the film has meandered along up until that point.
The film does come alive when Close meets a fellow woman living under a masculine identity in Janet McTeer’s character. McTeer brings much needed life to the film bringing a bravado confidence that Nobbs utterly lacks. It is that confidence in her masculinity, and the fact she has been able to start up a life with a wife, that Nobbs envies above all else and propels her to pursue Wasikowska. While Close is all quiet reserve and pent up sexuality, McTeer crashes into the scene with charisma, charm, and a complete security in who she is. Both characters wear masks to hide themselves both privately and publicly, but whereas Nobbs has chosen a life of quiet resolve and seems almost desperate to hide into the background of the hotel, McTeer’s character has embraced that masculinity rather than choosing to hide in it with an alluring magnetism that’s hard to deny.
The film brings up interesting themes about gender and sexual identity and how we choose to identify and live with those identities. Nobbs, however, feels absolutely sexless so when she does pursue Wasikowska’s character it’s hard to tell whether she is doing it to truly live within that identity or whether she’s merely playing into that dream of the tobacco shop and living a somewhat normal life. We are kept at such arm’s length from the character because that’s how she treats the world. The scenes where we even get a peek at who Nobbs truly is are few and far between and those moments of release are as freeing to the audience as they are to Nobbs herself.
The film, ultimately, is much like the title character the film fails to explore adequately. There’s some lip service to the circumstances that brought her here but the audience never truly understands why she made the decisions she has made to live as she does or why any of it should matter or who the real Nobbs really is. The film is dull and outside of some outstanding performances (including Close, who despite my reservations with the character, does deliver a nicely restrained if a bit too reserved performance), the film never delivers on the promises of its heady themes on gender, sexuality, and identity, especially within the confines of those times.