Wednesday, January 25, 2012

ALBERT NOBBS is back: This feminist fable from Garcia & Close enchants and saddens

The one-week "Oscar" qualifying run proved more than worth it for ALBERT NOBBS, as this delicate new jewel of a movie from the director of some of the most delicate work in film history, Rodrigo Garcia -- nabbed three nominations this week: Best Actress (Glenn Close) Best Supporting Actress (Janet McTeer) and Best Achievement in Make-up. Set in Ireland a century or more ago, the movie has its "look" down pat, and although it is what you'd call a small movie (small major cast and done at a surprisingly low budget, considering the need for historical veracity), it seems "right" in all respects.

Colombian-born filmmaker Garcia, shown at right, has worked with Ms Close several times now, and their rapport is a good one for this tale of a woman (the, yes, title character) who has been posing and working as a man for several decades. The subject is never brought up, and the word is never spoken aloud, but Albert Nobbs is a feminist film down to its toes because it shows (without "telling") the plight of women, probably more so in Ireland than in most western countries, in terms of their choices and what little means of making a living was available to them at the time.

A man had infinitely wider choices, even a "man" who was not quite a man, as Albert discovered at a young age, when s/he dressed up in drag and began working a job that would have been unthinkable had s/he looked like her own sex. Pretending tends to be easier if a person can go relatively unnoticed, and this appears to have been Albert's modus operandi.

Just as our "man" disappears into his job, so does Ms Close disappear into Albert (she had a hand in the screenplay, as well, which was based upon a short story by George Moore). The actress keeps things quiet and simple. This is definitely not a "showy" performance and yet it is certainly one of the most subtle displays of acting I've seen -- all the more so because it occurs in a role that would seem to call for some bravura stuff. (Well, "bravura," I guess, is what you make it, and Close has made of it something new and different.)

However, all this subtlety and quiet has a downside -- threatening to grow boring -- but just when it does, a new character is introduced, one Hubert Page, above, played by Ms McTeer (yes, we have another cross-dresser in the film). However, McTeer is what we used to call a "big girl" -- and in every way. Standing more than six feet tall, full of energy and courage, this actress grabs the Hubert character and runs with him, turning her "man" into everything that Albert is not: proud, strong, unafraid and as "male" as can be.

The two actresses balance each other -- and the movie -- nearly perfectly. Were they both to win their "Oscar," that would be lovely, though I expect the Academy members will be more impressed with McTeer's strength than with Close's subtlety. We shall see. Meanwhile, content yourself with the other ace performances that Garcia draws from his superbly chosen cast.

There's Pauline Collins as the main-chance innkeeper into whose employ both Albert and Hubert have come; Brendan Gleeson, as the helpful and caring doctor on premises; and Mia Wasikowska (above, left) and Aaron Johnson (below, and lately John Lennon) as two employees at the hotel/restaurant. Ms Wasikowska especially impresses here. This young actress has turned in such differing performances -- Jane Eyre, Alice in Tim Burton's verison of Wonderland, Restless, The Kids Are All Right and That Evening Sun -- as to be nearly unrecognizable from role to role.

In Mr. Johnson's character of Joe, we have a young man who might very well be the movie's hero -- if times were not so bad, and Joe had a bit more feeling for others. His and Ms Wasikowska's story is the other engine that keeps the movie rolling, and through it, we see the pain of class distinction among several injustices. We also see how an epidemic of sickness cuts through society, and how the bourgeoisie fawns over "royalty" (in the person of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, below, doing a couple of walk-ons here).

Albert Nobbs, from Liddell Entertainment and Roadside Attractions, opens nationwide for its return theatrical engagement this Friday, January 27, in what is really an enormous release for a small, independent movie like this. More power to ya, Albert! Click here to see all cities and theaters.

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